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SUPERSTITIONS 
ABOUT ANIMALS. 



SUPERSTITIONS 
ABOUT ANIMALS 



BY 

FRANK GIBSON. 



"The course of nature is the art of God."— Young. 

" Nature is always wise in every part."— Lord Thl'elow. 

"Nothing in nature is unbeautiful." — Lord Tennyson. 

" We defy augury: there is a special Providence in the fall 
of a sparrow." — Shakespeare. 

"And God saw everything that He had made, and beheld 
it was very good." — Genesis. 



Condon and TkxocAstk-on-Zym : 

THE WALTER SCOTT PUBLISHING CO., LTD. 

-NEW YORK: 3 EAST I4TH STREET. 
1904. 



AUTHOR'S NOTE. 



My sole object in writing this little book has been 

to do something towards arousing a more general 

interest in a subject which has at no time obtained 

the attention it deserves. Yet there is no subject 

which so fully repays the thoughtful student as that 

of Natural History. In bringing together some of 

the most common superstitions about animals, and 

dealing with them in a light and popular way, I 

trust my object will in some measure be attained. 

If by the publication of this unpretentious work 

only a little of the prevalent superstition is swept 

away, and further interest is created in the wonders 

of the animal kingdom, I shall be more than amply 

rewarded. 

FRANK GIBSON. 

Bishop Auckland, 
July igo4. 



SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 



INTRODUCTORY. 

It would be interesting to know at what period of 
the world's history, and under what circumstances, 
mankind first attributed to certain members of the 
animal kingdom powers and functions above and 
beyond those which they possess through the wis- 
dom of their Creator. Was there, indeed, ever a 
period when the proper and natural position of each 
creature was intelligently understood by all mankind, 
and superstition and credulity were non-existent ? If 
ever there was such a blissful time — and it is reason- 
able to suppose that in a Divine creation there must 
have been — how came natural facts of the animal 
world to be distorted into unreasonable fiction ? 
How came legends and omens and monstrosities into 
existence ? Did they arise from men's sinfulness 
and fear, or were they the outcome of fertile imagi- 
nations desirous of adding to the wonders of 
Creation? These are questions that come in- 
voluntarily to my mind as I gaze over the great 
field which my subject embraces, and see the 



2 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

appalling superstition which is rampant in regard 
to the animal kingdom. For very much of it there 
is an explanation — men's lamentable ignorance 
concerning the nature and habits of the various 
creatures which have been provided for our use 
and the adornment of the world. But this explana- 
tion does not cover the whole range of superstition. 
It does not provide a solution to the widespread 
acceptance of omens and signs, or the popular belief 
in marvellous creatures which have had existence 
only in unhealthy imagination. The belief in omens 
and signs is not governed by education or a want 
of it. A man may have all the education which 
his age can supply, and his knowledge of natural 
history may be in keeping with his other mental 
acquirements, yet he may be as superstitious as the 
most uncultured and unlearned. In the same way, 
a man who understands all the good points of a 
dog, and can explain to you why this part of a 
certain specimen is too prominent, or why that 
part ought to be fuller or more angular, may, 
nevertheless, implicitly believe that the baying of 
a dog is an infallible sign of an approaching demise. 
Nor is superstition in respect of the animal king- 
dom limited to any age or any people. In all ages, 
so far as we are able to discover, except that which 
the Creator blessed with His approval, and among 
"all tribes and tongues," superstition has existed in 
some of its varied forms, and I think I may safely 
include the present age among the rest. For the 



INTRODUCTORY. 3 

amount of ignorance which is still rife in regard to 
animals ; the antiquated ideas which still prevail ; 
the threadbare, ofttimes ludicrous, fables which are 
still believed in, — do not mark the dawn of the 
twentieth century as being much more advanced than 
the first so far as superstitions about animals are 
concerned. As in the days of Greek and Roman pre- 
dominance, the raven and the owl, and in a less 
degree the crow, are still regarded as birds of 
augury; and while cats in ancient Egypt were ex- 
alted to the high estate of deity, the black members 
of the tribe in our own country are placed above 
their fellows on account of the good fortune which is 
said to attend them ; and cats of every colour serve 
as infallible barometers. 

If^ i were to venture outside the limited area of 
my subject, and- t^e you into the broader field 
of superstition in general, such as is exemplified by 
the auguries of crossed knives, thirteen at table, 
weddings on Fridays, new moons, builders' ladders, 
and so on, I should have little difficulty in showing 
that there is much more superstition in our midst 
than most people would credit. But I must confine 
myself strictly to the subject embraced by my title, 
" Superstitions about Animals." Within this area I 
must further limit myself to superstitions which are 
more or less common to all parts of the country. To 
go beyond this boundary and deal with superstitions 
which are purely local, or to include the boundless 
legends and fables and auguries of other countries, 



4 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

would mean the extension of the work beyond the 
compass of a single volume of more than ordinary 
dimensions — indeed, I very much fear the extension 
would have no ending. 

When first I put my pen to paper in the con- 
struction of this little book, I intended to deal with 
all superstitions so far as they related to animals, 
but I quickly perceived where this intention would 
lead me. Almost the first omen I took in hand was 
that of the Seven Whistlers. 

" He the seven birds hath seen, that never part. 
Seen the Seven Whistlers in their nightly rounds. 
And counted them." — Wordsworth. 

But not only did I find that the Seven Whistlers are 
regarded as auguries of evil in several parts of the 
country, ranging from the north to the south ; I 
also found that omens of a very similar kind, though 
under different names, are among the most popular 
superstitions. On reading again that delightful 
work of Buckland's — Curiosities of Natural History, 
I observed, for example, that there are certain ill- 
omened "whistlers" on the south coast of England 
called by the fishermen of Dover the " Herring 
Piece," and the fishermen of Folkestone the 
"Herring Spar." We may gather from Spenser's 
reference to 

" The whistler shrill that whoso heares doth dy," 

that these aerial "whistlings" are ominous sounds 
of considerable antiquity. Almost all local super- 



INTRODUCTORY. 5 

stitions may be found under similar manifestations in 
other parts of the country, and, in some cases, on 
the Continent and even wider afield. 
Thus the legend of 

" Gabriel's hounds 
Doomed, with their impious lord, the flying hart 
To chase for ever, on aerial grounds," 

is but another form of several ancient West of Eng- 
land stories ; and of the same order are the Aerial 
Hunter of Fontainebleau Forest and The Wild 
Huntsman of Germany. 

" The Wildgrave flies o'er bush and thorn 
With many a shriek of helpless woe; 
Behind him hound, and horse, and horn. 
And ' Harkaway and holla, ho ! '" 

Without giving further examples, it will, I think, 
be seen that had I carried out my first intention of 
dealing with each local superstition, I should have 
undertaken a work of far greater magnitude than I 
anticipated. I therefore decided that I must, at any 
rate for the present, considerably limit my sphere of 
operations. I should have liked also to deal with 
that branch of superstition which, for want of a 
better term, I may call "Animal Nostrums" — that is 
to say, potions and charms made from various parts 
of animals for the purpose of curing or keeping 
away maladies; such, for instance, as that mentioned 
by PHny— the gall of a hedgehog mixed with the; 
brains of a bat for removing superfluous hairs; the 



6 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

right eye of a hedgehog fried in oil to render the 
vision as good at night as in the day ; the hair of a 
mad dog to cure hydrophobia; black cat's hairs for 
removing styes ; adder fat for curing burns or snake 
bites; viper broth for skin diseases; the ears of a 
hare to prevent harm or accident — a charm I saw 
worn by an Irish Yeoman during the Boer War to 
ward off the enemy's bullets; and so on. But in- 
teresting as these nostrums are in exemplifying the 
extraordinary ignorance and credulity which existed 
among apothecaries and people in bygone days, and 
which exist to no small degree among country folk 
to-day, I could not do otherwise than leave them till 
another occasion. For the present, as I have inti- 
mated, I will deal only with such superstitions about 
animals as are more or less known in all parts of the 
country; and in doing this I will divide my subject 
into three parts: — 

1. Signs and omens, 

2. Distortion of facts of Natural History. 

3. Creatures of the imagination. 



SIGNS AND OMENS. 

" Stones have been known to move and trees to speak; 
Augurs and understood relations have 
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth 
The secret'st man of blood." — Shakespeare. 

History tells us that in almost all ages signs and 
omens have played no small part in affecting men's 
conduct, and perhaps, in a lesser degree, this is 
true of the world to-day. There are, at the present 
time, a large number of people, by no means ignorant 
or naturally credulous, who accept omens and signs 
as the direct manifestations of the Creator's will. 
They argue that it is compatible with reason that 
"the birds of the air and beasts of the field" should, 
under given circumstances, serve a purpose outside 
their usual and natural spheres. This possibility I 
will not deny. 

If God so will, He can use any part of His marvel- 
lous Creation to interpret His purposes, just as He 
has drawn lessons from the lily and the sparrow. 
But I must suggest that very few of the various 
omens, good or ill, are calculated to fill the ordinary 
mind with a sense of the supernatural. Moreover, 
the omens are of a too general and unpractical 
character to be considered seriously. We are told. 



8 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

for example, that the baying of a dog is a certain 
forewarning of death. Now, as a dog rarely con- 
fines its vocal exercises to the hearing of any person 
in particular, the omen is without force. It is quite 
within the bounds of probability that soon after such 
an occurrence one of the numerous persons who 
heard it may die. But what will that prove? If, 
whenever a dog howled, all the people who heard it 
died, or if only two persons heard it and one died, 
leaving the other as a witness, then the reputation 
of the dog as a kind of agent in advance for a 
future state would be established. Similarly, a 
"Death-watch" may be heard by a large number 
of people among whom there will probably be some 
one who will subsequently trace the death of a re- 
lative to the warning "tick" of the little beetle. 
But let us not be too hasty in poking fun at the 
superstitions of other people. It is more than likely 
we have our own pet omens and signs, or believe 
implicitly in the existence of some strange creatures 
which have no place in the animal 'world. Per- 
haps we do not believe that dogs foretell death, 
but we are certain that toads are " venomous"; and 
though we laugh at the superstition that " death- 
watches " give fatal warning, we are sure that 
dragons are living realities because they are men- 
tioned in the Bible. All the same, if we are super- 
stitious, we need not fear that we are superstitious 
in solitude, for many of the ablest and most pro- 
minent men in all countries have had their pet 



THE RAVEN. 



omens and signs. Shakespeare, as we shall see, has 
introduced many superstitions into his writings, and 
some wonderful creatures of imagination have been 
allowed to find their way even into the Holy 
Scriptures. 



ILL OMENS. 

" Among us mortals, omens drear 
Fright and perplex." — Keats. 

Let us now notice some of the creatures which are, 
or have been in earlier days, regarded as ominous of 
bad fortune. First of all there is the Raven. From 
the earliest ages the raven has been regarded as one 
of the " fatall birds," 

" Such as by nature men abhorre and hate." 

No doubt its solitary habits, its grim plumage, its 
harsh voice, and its uncleanliness have been the 
cause of this general aversion. Noah, we are told, 
sent out a raven, which went forth to and fro until 
the waters were dried up. The reason plainly was 
that there were numerous putrefying carcasses on 
which it could feed. The dove, which was subse- 
quently sent out, returned to the. Ark because she 
"found no rest for the sole of her foot." 

Probably from that very day the raven has been a 
pariah among birds, while the dove has always been 



10 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

a type of constancy, love, and gentleness. The 
raven has become 

" The fittest bird for murder's track." 

The dove is 

" The very blessed spirit of peace." 

But was it not the raven, 

" Swift- winged and strong,'' 

which Noah selected, in preference to all other birds, 
to send forth from the Ark on its lonely voyage of 
discovery, and was it not the raven which God 
Himself chose to minister tenderly to the needs of 
His prophet in the wilderness ? As a fact of natural 
history, devotion and constancy are very strong 
points in the character of ravens, while bickering 
and quarrelsomeness run riot in every dove-cote over 
the most trivial matters. 

It is in the manner of feeding that the raven 
appears at its worst, stripping carcasses and devour- 
ing the young of other creatures, whereas the dove 
is very strictly clean in its choice of food. The jet- 
like blackness of the raven's plumage is another 
feature which has told strongly against it, while the 
soft, pale plumage of the dove, contrasted with the 
sooty garment of the larger bird, is one of the 
favourite themes of poets — as if, indeed, it were 
"the coat that made the man." But, as we shall 
see presently, the raven is not the only bird which has 



THE raven's character. II 

been saddled with a bad character for being black. 
Then, again, the lonely situation of the raven's place 
of abode has also been a strong factor in determin- 
ing its character. Writers have not been slow in 
laying hold of this habit for the purpose of illustra- 
tion. When Isaiah wished to depict the utter 
desolation which was to fall upon Idumea he 
exclaimed : 

" The owl and the raven shall dwell in it." 

The raven is frequently associated with night as 
typifying evil. Edgar Allan Poe addresses it as 
coming from 

" The night's plutonian shore.'' 

Aldrich describes night as 

" a stealthy raven 
Wrapt to the eyes in his black wings." 

And, generally speaking, its character is unwhole- 
some and repugnant. 

"The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to 
obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out." 

— Proverbs. 

" The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge." 

— Shakespeare. 

" The obscene ravens, clamorous o'er the dead." 

— Shelley. 

" The raven was screeching, the leaves fast fell. 
The sun gazed cheerlessly down on the sight." 

— Heine. 

2 



12 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

These passages serve to show what have been 
regarded as the habits and nature of the bird. For 
evidence respecting its character as a bird of ill omen 
we can go to numerous writers. Edgar Allen Poe, 
in his magnificent play upon words, "The Raven," 
says: 

" I betook myself to linking 
Fancy into fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore, 
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous 

bird of yore 
Meant in croaking ' Never more.'" 

Shakespeare more than once mentions the raven as 
a bird of ill omen. In Macbeth, for example, we find 
the reference: 

" The raven himself is hoarse 
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan 
Under our battlements." 

And in Othello we have the lines : 

" It comes o'er my memory 
As doth the raven o'er the infected house. 
Boding to all." 

Ben Jonson, in his unfinished play. The Sad 
Shepherd, writes: 

" Now o'erhead sat a raven, 
On a sere bough a grown great bird, and hoarse ! 
Who, al! the while the deer was breaking up. 
So croaked and cried for it, as all the huntsmen. 
Especially old Scathlock, thought it ominous; 
Swore it was Mother Maudlin." 



AUGURIES OF BIRDS. 13 

Dryden similarly writes : 

"Besides, a raven from a withered oak 
Left of their lodging was observed to croak. 
That omen liked him not." 

Even Dr. Watts joins in the general denunciation 
of the unfortunate fowl : 

" Unlucky birds of hateful name — 
Ravens and crows." 

And Butler, writing of these two birds in a similar 
strain, asks — 

" Is it not ominous in all countries 
When crows and ravens croak on trees? " 

If I were to answer this question, I should be 
compelled to acknowledge that in all ages, so far as 
we can ascertain, crows and ravens have indeed 
been birds of ill omen. Even if we go back to. the 
century preceding Christ's birth, we find Virgil 
writing of 

" The hoarse raven on the blasted bough," 

which, 

" By croaking from the left, presaged the coming blow." 

And this ancient belief in the raven's gift of augury 
was just as prevalent in the earlier days of Grecian 
predominance. 

The ancients attached very grave importance to 
the auguries of birds, and their note and manner of 



14 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

flight were studiously observed and used in the art 
of soothsaying. Spenser refers to this art in the 
words : 

" And tryed time yet taught me greater thinges : 
The soothe of byrdes by beating of their winges." 

Mrs. Browning, in Prometheus Bound, also mentions 
the ancient auguries: 

" And defined as plain 
The wayside omens, — flights of crook-clawed birds, — 
Showed which are, by their nature, fortunate, 
And which not so." 

Jonson, at some length, in The Masque of Augurs, 
deals with this special branch of "the tuneful art of 
augury": 

"Apollo (singing). Then forth and show the several 
flights 
Your birds have made, or what the wing 
Or voice in augury doth bring, 
Which hand the crow cried on, how high 
The vulture or the heme did fly; 
What wing the swan made, and the dove, 
The stork, and which did get above; 
Show all the birds of food or prey, 
The night-crow, swallow, or the kite, 
Lefthese have neither right. 
Chorus. Nor part. 

In this night's art. 
Apollo (after the auguries are interpreted). The signs are 
lucky all, and right. 
There hath not been a voice, or flight, 
Of ill presage — 



THE RAVEN TURNS BLACK. 15 

Linus. The bird that brings 

Her augury alone to kings, 

The dove, hath flown. — 
Orpheus. And to thy [King James I.] peace, 

Fortune and the Fates increase. 
Branchus. Minerva's hernshaw, and her owl, 

Do both proclaim, thou shalt control 

The course of things. 
Idmon. As now they be 

With tumult carried, 
Apollo. And live free 

From hatred, faction, or the fear 

To blast the olive thou dost wear." 

I need hardly say that in those ancient days of 
prevalent credulity the raven, the owl, and the crow 
were made the subjects of many weird legends. 
None of these, I think, is quainter than how the 
raven, or as another rendering has it, the crow, was 
transformed from swan-like whiteness to the very 
extreme, the most funereal black. It was on account 
of his "chattering tongue," or his desire to be the 
first bringer of evil news, as Ovid informs us, that 
the raven lost his pristine beauty, and was allowed no 
longer to perch among white birds, " This bird was 
formerly of a silver hue," says the ancient writer 
(translated by Henry T. Riley, M.A.), "with snow- 
white feathers, so that he equalled the doves, entirely 
without spot; nor would he give place to the geese 
that were to save the Capitol by their watchful voice, 
nor to the swan haunting the streams. His tongue 
was the cause of his disgrace ; his chattering tongue 
being the cause, that the colour which was white is 



l6 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

now the reverse." Or, as Addison renders the same 
passage in verse : 

" The raven once in snowy plumes was drest, 
White as the whitest dove's unsuUy'd breast, 
Fair as the guardian of the Capitol, 
Soft as the swan, a large and lovely fowl ; 
His tongue, his prating tongue had changed him quite 
To sooty blackness from the purest white." 

The raven, bird of Phoebus, having discovered that 
Larisssen Coronis, than whom "there was no one 
more beauteous in all Hsemonia," had been un- 
faithful to his master, winged his way to the god 
and informed him of his mistress's infidelity. 

" On hearing the crime of his mistress his laurel 
fell down ; and at the same moment his usual looks, 
his plectrum, and his colour, forsook the god. And 
as his mind was now burning with swelling rage, he 
took up his wonted arms, and levelled his bow bent 
from the extremities, and pierced with an unerring 
shaft, that bosom that had been so often pressed to 
his own breast. Wounded, she uttered a groan, and, 
drawing the steel from out of the wound, she bathed 
her white limbs with purple blood ; and . . . poured 
forth her life together with her blood. A deadly 
coldness took possession of her body deprived of 
life. 

"The lover, too late, alas! repents of his cruel 
vengeance, and blames himself that he listened to 
the bird, and that he was so infuriated. He hates 



A BIRD TO BE SHUNNED. I7 

the bird, through which he was forced to know of 
the crime, and the cause of his sorrow; he hates, 
too, the string, the bow, and his hand ; and together 
with his hand, those rash weapons, the arrows. He 
cherishes her fallen to the ground, and by late 
resources endeavours to conquer her destiny; and 
in vain he practises his physical arts. . . . And he 
forbade the raven, expecting for himself the reward 
of his tongue that told no untruth, to perch any 
longer among the white birds." 

So that is how the raven became black ! But the 
awe and reverence with which the ancients regarded 
it in time changed to loathing and detestation. Its 
mission, as a prophet by which evil things might be 
averted, no longer obtained, and it became simply 
an "unclean fowl" whose associations were loath- 
some and deadly. 

" While o'er those caitiffs where they lie. 
The wolf shall snarl, the ravens cry." 

Even in resting, it evinced a preference for decay. 

" O'erhead sat a raven 
On a sere hough."— /ofison. 

" Or raven on a 6/asied oak." — Scott. 

" He passes now the doddered od^. 
Ye heard the startled raven cxosk."— Scott. 

" A raven from a withered oak." — Dryden. 



l8 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

As the ensign of the devastating Danes, it struck 
terror into the bold hearts of our forefathers, 

" When Denmark's raven soared on high. 
Triumphant through Northumbrian sky. 
Till hovering near, \\^x fatal croak 
Bade Reged's Britons dread the yoke, 
And the broad shadow of her wing 
Blackened each cataract and spring." — Scott. 

Its very eyes have been likened to living coals or 
flashes of fire. 

" Thus I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable express- 
ing 
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's 
core." — E. A. Foe. 

" And aloft upon the ridge-pole 
Kahgahgee, the King of Ravens, 
Sat with fiery eyes." — Longfellow. 

" Why, any time of night, you may see his eyes in my 
dark room, shining like two sparks. And every night, and 
all night too, he's broad awake." — Dickens. 

In addition to being universally regarded as un- 
canny, and mostly branded as a "thing of evil," 
the raven has not escaped being directly associated 
writh the Realms of Darkness. Edgar Allan Poe had 
no doubt that its origin was distinctly " evil," and it 
would seem that his secret opinion of the immortal 
" Raven" was that it also consisted both of " fiend " 
and "devil." 



THE CROW. 19 

But Charles Dickens is in no way dubious 
respecting the origin of the equally immortal 
"Grip." He tells us that the bird "asserted his 
brimstone birth and parentage with great distinct- 
ness," and Grip, "as if exulting in his infernal 
character," persistently declared, whenever he had 
the opportunity, " I'm a devil, I'm a devil!" 

There is, perhaps, scarcely need to say that the 
character of the raven has been stigmatised without 
the least justification. Apart from its universal 
association with evil augury, it has always been 
regarded as a cruel parent, turning its young out 
of their nest before they have learned to provide for 
their own sustenance; whereas, no bird existing is 
more solicitous concerning the welfare of its young 
than is the raven. 



As we have seen from two of the foregoing 
quotations, the Crow is mentioned in company with 
the raven as " a thing of evil," and its character as 
a bird of "ill omen" seems to be equally ancient. 
No doubt its colour, which has made its name 
proverbial, together with its nasty habits, have 
singled it out for popular disfavour. Like the 
raven, it is generally associated with death and 
decay, and its chosen resting-place is away from 
colour and foliage. 

" A crow with sidelong eye 
Watched from a dead hough.'' 



20 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

In another respect also it resembles its larger 
relative the raven — its plumage was formerly white, 
at any rate so we are told, and its transformation 
was in the same way brought about by the 
unguarded use of a chattering tongue. The story 
is in all respects like that of Phoebus and Coronis, 
but is well worth repeating in the quaint, homely 
language of the poet Chaucer. Says he — 

"When Phebus dwelled here in erth adoun, 
As olde bookes maken mentioun, 
He was the most lusty bacheler 
Of all this world, and eke the best archer." 

And taking him all round he was 

" The semelieste man 
That is or was, sithen the world began." 

" Now had this Phebus in his house a crowe. 
Which in a cage he fostered many a day. 
And taught it speken, as men teche a jay. 
Whit was this crowe, as is a snow-whit swan, 
And contrefete the speche of every man 
He coude, when he shulde tell a tale. 
Therwith in all this world no nightingale 
He coude by an hundred thousand del 
Singen so wonder merily and wel." 

But Phebus possessed more than a crow in a 
cage. 

" Now had this Phebus in his hous a wif, 
Which that he loved more than his lif, 
And night and day did ever his diligence 
Hire for to plese, and don hire reverence." 



CHAUCER'S TALE OF THE CROW. 21 

Phebus, however, was a jealous man, and tried 
to keep his " wife" from receiving the attentions of 
any other swain ; but, says Chaucer, it is " labour 
in vain" to watch "a shrewe," for they cannot be 
watched. Take any bird and put it in a cage, 
he says, foster it tenderly with meat and drink, 
and keep it clean, and, although the cage be golden, 
it will "twenty thousand fold" live in a forest that 
is " wilde and cold" eating worms and "swiche 
wretchednesse." So also a cat, though fostered and 
fed on milk and tender flesh, will leave these dainties 
if she 

" see a mous go by the wall." 

And so it was with this 

"Wif 
Which that he loved more than his lif." 

No sooner was Phebus's back turned than she 

" sent for hire lemman " 

— sent for her lover — and the crow looked down 
from his perch, but 

" sayde never a word." 

However, when Phebus returned, the crow opened 
his heart and his beak and told him how false was 
this woman whom he loved so truly; and Phebus, 
thinking his heart was breaking, drew his bow and 
sent an arrow quivering into his wife's body. Then, 
filled with remorse for what he had done, he turned 



22 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Upon the crow furiously and cursed it for making so 
free use of its scurrilous tongue. 

"And to the crowe, O false thefe, said he, 
I wol thee quite anon thy false tale. 
Thou song whilom, like any nightingale, 
Now Shalt thou, false thefe, thy song forgon, 
And eke thy white feathers, everich on, 
Ne never in all thy lif ne shalt thou speke; 
Thus shul men on a traitour ben awreke. 
Thou and thin ofspring ever shul be blake, 
Ne never swete noise shul ye make. 
But ever crie ageins tempest and rain. 
In token that thrugh thee my wif is slain. 
And to the crowe be stert, and that anon, 
And pulled his white fethers everich on. 
And made him blak, and raft him all his song 
And eke his speche, and out at dore him flong 
Unto the devil, which I him betake; 
And for this cause ben alle crowes blake." 

And, pointing a sound moral from the lot of the 
unfortunate "crowe," deprived of its sweet song 
and snowy plumage, Chaucer sagely adds: 

" My son, beware, and be non auctour newe [no bearer] 
Of tidings, whether they ben false or trewe; 
Wher so thou come, amonges high or lowe, 
Kepe well thy tonge, and thinke upon the crowe." 

Under certain circumstances the Rook is also 
regarded as a bird of ill omen. Country pepple tell 
us that when a colony of rooks forsake their accus- 
tomed building-place it may be accepted as a sure 
sign that a great calamity is about to fall on the 



THE JACKDAW AND CHOUGH. 23 

family to whom the rookery belongs ; and a single 
rook sitting lonely upon a house-top is accepted by 
many as ominous of death. Besides being regarded 
as birds of ill omen, rooks are supposed to possess 
the villainous habit of plucking out the eyes of 
persons sleeping in open places ; and it is further 
said of them that whenever they pass over a corpse 
they utter a weird, uncanny cry. In respect of the 
former, it need only be said that rooks are not car- 
nivorous birds like crows or ravens ; and as for the 
latter, I have not yet met with any one who has 
taken special notice of the birds during a funeral 
procession, or at an interment, to be able to say how 
they conduct themselves under such circumstances. 
As I have already pointed out, both the crow and the 
raven have most probably derived much of their 
unpleasant notoriety from their sombre plumage, 
and it is just as likely that the rook comes under the 
same category for the same reason. 

Even our gay, chattering friend, the Jackdaw, is 
not allowed to go unscathed. Cowper describes it 
as a bird which 

" By his coat 
And by the hoarseness of his note. 
Might be supposed to be a crow." 

And he classes him among 

" Birds obscene of ominous note," 

a category in which he also places the Chough, 
called by some the " red-billed jackdaw." 



24 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Dryden also associates birds of a black feather in 
one group : 

" To Crows the like impartial grace affords, 
And Choughs and Daws and such republic birds." 

Longfellow includes the Jay amongst the ^* black 
marauders": 

" Kahgahgee, the king of ravens, 
Gathered all his black marauders, 
Crows and blackbirds, jays and ravens 
Clamorous on the dusky tree-tops." 

And, as if there were something threatening in the 
voices of the "black marauders," as "from all the 
neighbouring tree-tops " they " cawed and croaked," 

" ' Ugh 1' the old men all responded, 
From their seats beneath the pine-trees! " 

Shakespeare, as we have seen, gives the Raven a 
primary place amongst birds of evil augury, and, in 
at least one passage, puts the Crow in a similarly 
notorious position: 

"And thou treble-dated crow, 
That thy sable gender makest 
With the breath thou givest and takest 
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go." 

Then, as if to complete the list, he adds the Magpie : 

" Augurs and understood relations have 
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth 
The secret'st man of blood." 



THE MAGPIE AND OWL. 2$ 

It is, however, only when it appears singly that the 
magpie is a prognosticator of evil. On the other 
hand, two or more are said to be indicative of good 
fortune. Cowper, for instance, asserts that he 
" rejoiced" 

" If two auspicious magpies crossed my way," 

a reference, evidently, to the old rhyme : 

" One for sorrow, 
Two for mirth, 
Three for a wedding, 
Four for a birth.'' 

The Owl, which not infrequently we find men- 
tioned in company with the raven, bears the same 
character as a foreteller of evil. The reason for this 
may be found in its love of solitude, its habit of turn- 
ing night into day, its silent, spectral flight, and its 
melancholy cry. Those who have heard these weird, 
mournfvil notes in the dead of night will quite 
appreciate the prophet Micah's simile when he 
speaks pf the 

" Mourning as the owls.'' 

In South Africa I have heard this "mourning" or 
"hooting" on the kopjes at night, and it is a 
strange, uncanny cry, quite calculated to create a 
" creepy " sensation, if not actually of foreboding. 

Whenever it is mentioned in Scripture or in poetry, 
the owl, inclusive of all the species, is surrounded 
with an atmosphere of gloom, sadness, and solitude. 



26 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

The Psalmist leads the way in this respect by 
writing of " the owl of ruined places." 

Isaiah, when he describes the downfall of Idumea, 
says : 

"The screech owl [or night-monster] shall rest there. 
There shall the great owl rest, and gather under her 
shadow." 

Gray, in his immortal "Elegy," describes this 
feature in the following beautiful lines: — 

" Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower, 
The moping owl doth to the moon complain 
Of such as, wand'ring near her secret boVr, 
Molest her ancient, solitary reign." 

In the same strain Burns, in his charmingly 
expressed ode "To the Owl," writes: 

" Shut out, lone bird ! from all the feather'd train. 
To tell thy sorrows to th' unheeding gloom: 
No friend to pity when thou dost complain, 
Grief all thy thought, and solitude thy home." 

Truly a beautifully-worded but melancholy, and, 
in one sense, an inaccurate description. There is 
no adequate reason to suppose that the owl is a 
more unhappy bird than, say, the canary or the sky- 
lark. No doubt it is solely the nocturnal habits of 
the "lone bird" which have surrounded it with an 
atmosphere so gloomy and pathetic. The song of 
the nightingale, probably for the same reason, has in 
it a vein of sweet melancholy which is not to be 



THE SCREECH OWL. 27 

found ill the song of the robin, or the lark, or any 
other day-time warbler. 

In nearly all references to the owl as a bird of 
evil omen, the species mentioned is the screech owl, 
or, as we know it in England, the " barn owl." 

" But thou shrieking harbinger, 
Foul precursor of the fiend. 
Augur of the fever's end, 

To this troop come thou not near ! " 

— Shakespeare. 

As far back as history takes us, and in all 
countries where the unfortunate bird is known, it 
has been burdened with the foulest character of any 
of the "feathered tribe." To go back only to the 
days of Rome, Virgil writes : 

" With a boding note 
The solitary screech owl strains his throat. 
And on a chimney-top, or turret height. 
With song obscene disturbs the silence of the night." 

And, speaking of the same period, Butler writes: 

" The Roman senate, when within 
The city wall an owl was seen, 
Did cause their clergy with lustrations 



The round-faced prodigy t' avert 
From doing town or country hurt." 

Ovid, writing in the same strain, speaks of the 

3 



aS SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

owl as "an accursed bird," and further describes 
Ascalaphus as becoming 

" An obscene bird, the foreboder of approaching woe, a 
lazy owl, a direful omen to mortals.'' 

Hardly is it necessary to say that among the an- 
cients the screech owl was the subject of numerous 
legends, each of which emphasises its character as a 
bird of ill repute. Nothing shows more clearly how 
cordially was this bird detested, though at the same 
time feared, than the fable of Nyctimene's transforma- 
tion into an owl for committing a heinous crime. 
And it is because of this foul sin, so the ancient 
legend says, that the owl secludes herself from the 
company of all other birds and ventures forth only 
under cover of darkness. 

"She is a bird indeed; but being conscious of her crime 
she avoids the human gaze and the light, and conceals her 
shame in the darkness; and by all the birds she is expelled 
entirely from the sky." — Ovid. 

Coming to mediaeval days, we find that the 
character of the owl has not improved in popular 
opinion. 

"Thtghastlie owl her grievous inne [abode] doth keep.'' 

— Spenser. 

While Shakespeare, writing about the same 
period, makes several references to the bird's ill- 
boding tongue, among which are the following: — 



POETS AND THE OWL, 29 

" Whilst the screech owl, screeching loud, 
Puts the wretch that lies in woe, 
In remembrance of a shroud." 

— "A Midsummer Nights Dream." 

" Bring forth that fatal screech owl to our house, 
That nothing sung but death to us and ours ; 
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound, 
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak." 

—''Henry VIP (Part III.). 

Still in later days the owl retains its notoriety. 

" Again the shriek-owl shrieks — ungracious sound ! 
I'll hear no more ; it makes one's blood run cold." 

— Robert Blair. 

" What yonder rings .' what yonder sings ? 

Why shrieks the owlet grey ? . . . 
'Tis death-bells' clang, 'tis funeral song. 

The body to the cXz.-^."— Scott. 

" The bird of omen with incessant scream, 
To melancholy thoughts awakes the soul." 

— Chatterton. 

" A monstrous owl across us flies. 
Bad omen — this new match can't be a happy one." 

— Keats. 

" Down in a dark and solitary vale. 
Where the screech owl sings her fatal tale." 

— Chatterton. 

" No Fatal Owle the Bedstead keeps. 
With direful notes to fright your sleeps." 

— Herrick, 



30 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Ben Jonson writes of the "shrieks of luckless 
owls"; Keats, the "gloom-bird's hated screech"; 
Cowper, "the boding owl"; Moore, "the death- 
bird's cry"; Byron, "the owlet whose notes the dark 
fiend of midnight deplores." And many another 
poet joins these in denouncing the unlucky fowl as 
" a thing of evil." To reset an old-time adage — 
"Give an owl a bad name and shoot it." And this 
is precisely what happens to the poor bird. What 
with collectors and gamekeepers and sportsmen, the 
owl's life usually is short and none too sweet. In 
the destruction of these useful birds gamekeepers are 
the greatest offenders. " Kill everything but game " 
seems to be the rule by which these men are guided, 
so they shoot all manner of " vermin " from owls to 
jays and woodpeckers. To make a careful and 
intelligent study of the woodland Inhabitants which 
they see from day to day does not seem to them to 
be a course they should pursue. If they studied the 
nature and habits of owls they would not be long in 
discovering that the "bird of ill omen" was their 
friend and not their enemy. Because now and again 
an owl has been seen with a young pheasant in its 
possession, seems conclusive enough evidence to the 
ordinary keeper that it is a marauder which must 
forthwith be put out of the way of doing further harm. 
But it is a rare occurrence for an owl to seek young 
pheasants for food ; and when it has been discovered 
with this kind of game in its possession, the young 
pheasant would, I think, on examination prove to be 



THE LAPWING. 3I 

a delicate straggler. Even supposing that an owl 
actually does now and again pick up a small bird, 
can this be fairly set against the vast number of rats 
and mice which it kills as its natural food ? 

Of very different habits and appearance from the 
owl is the graceful Lapwing, wheeling and " lapping" 
in its lazy flight. Who would suppose that so pretty 
and harmless a bird as this tufted frequenter of our 
meadows would commend itself to the imagination of 
superstitious minds ? Yet the lapwing has long been 
regarded in Scotland as a bird of ill omen. Grahame, 
in his Birds of Scotland, more than once refers to 
the lapwing as an augury of evil, and gives the story 
from which it derived its evil character. So the 
story goes, when the sturdy Covenanters were 
seeking refuge among the wilds of Scotland from 
the persecution of the King's troops, the lapwings, 
hovering over the heads of the refugees, betrayed 
their whereabouts to the keen eyes of their pursuers. 
And so it came to pass that the lapwing has become 
known in Scotland as a bird of "ill omen." Poor, 
unfortunate waller ! How much of the story is fact, 
and how much is of the same loose imagination that 
has made the yellowhammer a pariah among birds, 
and the wren a malignant atom to be ruthlessly 
hunted down on St. Stephen's Day? But perhaps 
we can go back centuries before the days of the 
Covenanters for the origin of the lapwing's ill repute, 
for was it not into the likeness of one of these grace- 



32 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

ful birds that cruel King Tereus was transformed 
when pursuing with his drawn sword the outraged 
Philomela? As Spenser puts it: 

" The Thracian king lamenting sore, 
Turned to a lapwing, doeth them uprayde;" 

and Chaucer, no doubt thinking of the same fable — 

" The false lapwing, full of trecherie." 

Or, as a Milanese song renders the ancient legend : 

" There once was a king 
As wicked as possible; 
The Lord changed him 
Into a upoe." 

But in England the ancient myth is associated with 
the lapwing and not the hoopoe, though each is a 
bird "upon whose head stands a crested plume." 
This promiscuous interchanging of the names may 
be found in the lists of unclean fowl mentioned in 
Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where the same bird is 
rendered by the Authorised Version "lapwing," and 
by the Revised Version " hoopoe," the latter render- 
ing also being supported by the Vulgate. Or it may 
be that the lapwing's unpleasant notoriety is derived 
solely from its melancholy cry, in the same way that 
the owl unquestionably is hated for its "dismal, 
threatening sound," its "fatal screech." In any 
case, the two great poets of Scotland, who must 
have been often within hearing of its wailful voice, 



THE STORMY PETRfeL. 35 

ftiid have noted its weitd, circling flight, have given 
it an atmosphere of gloom and melancholy. Burns, 
when solicitous for the peace of his Mary sleeping by 
" Swreet Afton," admonishes the bird in the lines: 

" Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear, 
I charge you disturb not my slumbering fair." 

And Sir Walter Scott, wrriting of the "gentle lover 
of nature " who was found dead on Helvellyn, says: 

" And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying. 
Thy obsequies sung by the grey plover flying." 

So that, when we are walking in the stillness of the 
evening, and we hear near at hand a sad, wailful 
scream like some "lost soul forlorn," we may re- 
member that we are listening to the "foreboding" 
cry which brought destruction to the sturdy bands of 
Covenanters, and sang the obsequies over the stark 
body of the poor dead "lover of nature!" Or, if 
our fancy turns to higher flights, we can, in the 
same stillness, think that here the lustful King of 
Thrace, turned into a lapwing, for ever wails the 
ravishment of poor, confiding Philomela. 

Another bird which is regarded as a bird of ill 
omen is the Stormy Petrel. Sailors firmly believe 
that the petrel is a precursor of stormy weather. 
Theodore Watt mentions this strange belief when he 
writes : 

"Bird whom I welcomed, while the sailors -cursed." 



34 SUPERStltlONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

And Procter, writing in the same strain, declares 
that 

" The petrel telleth her tale in vain, 
For the mariner curseth the warning bird 
Which bringeth him news of the storm unheard." 

It would scarcely be supposed that among the 
creatures which are said to foretell a calamity, super- 
stitious people have included the common domestic 
Pigeon. There is nothing in the appearance or habits 
of this pretty, stately bird which should place it 
on the black list of birds of ill omen, and certainly 
under ordinary conditions its name is not associated 
with anything that is evil ; but there is one aspect 
under which it is regarded by many people to be a 
sure foreteller of death — that is when it enters a 
room through an open window. Now, personally I 
regard with something like ridicule so simple a form 
of superstition, and would give a welcome to any 
strange pigeon which did me the honour of seeking 
a refuge in my room. But, notwithstanding, I can 
recall the actual case of an old friend of mine dying 
in a room where a pigeon had a few days previously 
entered by the window. The pigeon happened to be 
one of my own, and my aged friend lectured me 
pretty severely on allowing the bird to spoil the ■ 
neatness of his apartment. He was hale and 
hearty at the time, but a few days later he 
died in that very room. Not long ago I men- 
tioned this incident casually to a friend, and 



A PORTENTOUS PIGEON. 35 

although he had not heard of the superstition asso- 
ciated with it, he curiously enough declared that 
a week before the death of his mother a stray 
pigeon was caught in the room in which she sub- 
sequently died. 

These two remarkable incidents, quoted from my 
own experience, will no doubt be considered con- 
clusive evidence, by some of my readers, that under 
the circumstances stated a pigeon is a sure foreteller 
of death ; but we must not so quickly jump to 
illogical conclusions. A starling — much more 
sombre and harsh-voiced than any pigeon — which 
recently I captured in a neighbour's room, might 
just as reasonably be accepted as a fore-warner of 
death. Whereas it is more sensible to suppose that 
the affrighted bird which so energetically nibbled at 
my thumbs, accidentally fluttered down the chimney 
and heartily wished himself back on the chimney-top 
instead of in a strange room, poked and peered at 
by his mortal enemy man. 

Similar to the above-mentioned superstitions is 
the belief that a swallow alighting on a window- 
sill foretells death to some person residing in, or 
associated with persons living in, the house. But 
a falling picture also, we are told, forewarns us of 
the same calamity, and there are many other 
incidents equally portentous which I need not 
mention. One, however, is worth dealing with 
somewhat fully, as it is almost universally accepted 



36 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

as a sign of approaching death. The fateful augur, 
in this case, is the little beetle {Anobium striatum), 
or, as it is commonly known, the "Death watch," 
which, by its quaint "ticking" or tapping, sets 
people's hearts a-beating apprehensively. Who has 
not, at one time or another, heard this little creature 
playing his merry pranks in the wainscotting or 
cupboard when everything else has been silent ? 
Not very long ago I heard one of these "death 
watches" which, I was told, had been " ticking" at 
intervals for several weeks, but no one in the farm- 
house where it was located has died in consequence. 
As a matter of fact, one of the occupants of the 
room soon afterwards married very happily, and the 
other is now holding a responsible position in South 
Africa. So much for the fateful ticking of this 
particular specimen ! In reality, putting all super- 
stition aside, the frail little creature, which so 
innocently has earned an unenviable character, 
" ticks " for no other purpose than to attract the 
attention of its mate. Under like circumstances the 
coster, who whistles under his donah's window when 
he wishes her to come out for a stroll, should be 
regarded by the superstitious as a creature of ill 
omen. 

Several of our poets have assisted in keeping alive 
this old-time superstition. Dean Swift mentions it 
in the following lines, though in a desire to parti- 
cularise he erroneously describes the " death watch" 
as "^a worm " or " a maggot ": — 



THE DEATH-WATCH. 37 

" A wood worm, 
That lies in old wood like a hare in her form, 
With teeth or with claws it will bite or will scratch, 
And chambermaids christen this worm ' death watch 'y 
Because like a watch it always cries ' click.' 
For sure as a gun they will give up the ghost 
If the maggot cries 'click' when it scratches the post." 

Gay also refers to the "death watch" in the 
passage — 

" The wether's bell 
Before the drooping flock toU'd forth her knell, 
The solemn death -watch clicked the hour she died." 

Similarly, Wordsworth adjures us to 

" Take 
A fearful apprehension from the owl 
Or death watch" 



Walter Thornbury, in his dramatic description of 
" The Death of th' Owd Squire," tells us that 

"The death watch, sure enough, tick'd loud just over th' 
owd mare's head, 
Tho' he'd never once been heard up there since master's 
boy lay dead." 

And Tennyson, in his poem " Forlorn," gives the 
old superstition in the words : 

" You that lie with wasted lungs 
Waiting for your summons . . . 
In the night, O the night ! 
O the death watch beating ! " 



38 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

! The Baying of a Dog as a sure foretelling of death 
is one of the most ancient and widespread super- 
stitions. Certainly nothing can so easily create a 
feeling of awe and apprehension as the weird, 
uncanny howling of a dog in the dead of night. 
Any one may justly be excused a superstitious belief 
in this respect. Never shall I forget the hideous 
howling of a retriever at midnight some years ago, 
when I was sailing in the Black Sea — or, to be more 
accurate, perhaps I ought to use the more applicable 
word "baying," for the noise, as distinguishable 
from mere howhng, was like a hopeless wail. The 
night was as dark as pitch ; that awful darkness 
which is peculiar to the sea. There was no sound 
save the panting of the engines and the beating of 
the propeller. I was sitting in my cabin reading for 
a brief spell before turning in, when of a sudden 
there arose, close to my door, such a villainous,, 
unearthly baying that my blood seemed to turn cold 
in my veins, and I believe my hair stood upright. 
More than anything, it might have been the cry of a 
soul shut out from Everlasting Life. Then everything 
was still again. A moment later the negro steward 
rushed into the cabin, with his big eyes rolling and 
his black face twitching with abject fright. 

" One of us has got to die, sir," he cried. " The 
dog howl, and it means death. One of us bound to 
die." 

It seems almost as good as verifying the super- 
stition to say that, within a few days, a sailor was 



THE HOWLING OF DOGS. 39 

killed on the very spot where the retriever had 
howled. Such, however, is a fact, and I had the 
unhappy duty of holding the poor fellow in my arms 
when, in great agony, he drew his last breath. 

Many allusions are made in our own literature to 
this superstition. In Shakespeare's King Henry VI. 
we have a direct reference to the howling of dogs as 
" an evil sign," and among others of his plays there 
are also passages in which the howling is attended 
with most dismal phenomena. The reference 
mentioned is : 

" The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign, 
The night-crow cried, aboding trickless time, 
Dogs howled, and hideous tempests tore down trees.'' 

In "Cumnor Hall," a poem by W. J. Mickle, which 
suggested to Sir Walter Scott the groundwork of his 
romance Kenilworth, there is a reference to the 
superstition : 

" The death-bell thrice was heard to ring, 
An aerial voice was heard to call. 
And thrice the raven flapped his wing 
Around the towers of Cumnor Hall. 

The mastiff howled ai village door. 
The oaks were shattered on the green; 

Woe was the hour, for never more 
That hapless Countess e'er was seen." 

It may be merely a coincidence, but there are three 
incidents common to the two foregoing quotations. 



40 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

When Gloucester was born, so Shakespeare makes 
King Henry say, the night-crow cried, 'dogs howled, 
and trees were torn down. At the death of the 
Countess, Mickle tells us, an aerial voice called, the 
mastiff howled, and oaks were shattered ; and if we 
extend the passage in King Henry VI. , we find that 
there is yet another common feature : 

" The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top; " 

or, as " Cumnor Hall " has it: 

" Thrice the raven flapped his wing." 

Among Keats's poems we also find the superstition 
directly referred to : 

" For as among mortals omens drear fright and perplex, 
Dog^s howl or gloom-birds hated screech." 

In the quotations from Shakespeare and Keats we 
find that the howling is accepted as an omen of evil 
things not come to pass ; whereas, in "Cumnor Hall," 
the howling takes place at the time of the violent 
death of the Countess. Shakespeare evidently goes 
beyond the generally accepted significance of the 
incident in making the animal apprehend, at the birth 
of Gloucester, a calamity which was not to take place 
until he had reached manhood. But in the other 
quotations we have direct references to what is a 
common belief, far more common than many will 
credit, that dogs, with a finer sense than human 
beings possess, are able to see spirits. 



DOGS AND death's ANGEL. 4I 

In this country the supposition is that dogs see the 
spirits of those who, loosed from mortal flesh, move 
about in the world of space which envelops our 
Earth ; or that, by even a finer sense, like that attri- 
buted to the shark, they are able to foreknow of 
death's approach or discern its presence. Shake- 
speare, no doubt familiar with this belief, associates 
the howling of the ban dogs with the midnight hour 
when spirits are said to be set at liberty, a subject I 
shall refer to later. 

" Ban dogs howl 
And spirits walk and ghosts break up their graves.'' 

In the East the popular belief is similar, yet varies 
in one particular. While in England it is supposed 
that dogs see ghosts "in general," the Eastern 
belief is that dogs are able to perceive the dread 
form of the Angel of Death. Sir Richard Burton, 
the famous traveller, on this point says : ' ' There are 
also certain superstitions about the dog resembling 
ours, only, as usual more poetical and less gro- 
tesque, current in El Hejaz. Most people believe 
that when the animal howls without apparent cause 
in the neighbourhood of a house, it forebodes death 
to one of the inmates. For the dog, they say, can 
distinguish the awful form of Azrael, the angel of 
death, hovering over the doomed abode, whereas 
man's spiritual sight is dull and dim by reason of his 
sins." 

In Longfellow's " Golden Legend" there is a con- 



42 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

versation between a Jewish Rabbi and Judas Iscariot 
touching upon the same superstition : 

"Rabbi. Come hither, Judas Iscariot. 

Say, if thy lesson thou hast got 
From thy Rabbinical Book or not. 
Why howls the dog at night .? 
Judas. In the Rabbinical Book, it saith 

The dogs howl, when, with icy breath 
Great Sammael, the Angel of Death, 
Takes through the town his flight !" 

Among sailors there is a very common supersti- 
tion, that a Shark following in the wake of a vessel 
unmistakably foretells the death of some person on 
board. Such a belief is, so far as I personally have 
had the opportunity of observing, without the least 
foundation in fact. On a voyage to South Africa a 
few years ago I noticed, when nearing the Equator, 
that a very large, sinister-looking shark kept up with 
the vessel for many miles, but the passage concluded 
under the most favourable and happy circumstances ; 
no one died, and very few were even sea-sick. 
Curiously enough, however, when I returned to 
England on a large liner fitted up as a hospital ship, 
with accommodation for more than a thousand 
invalids, we never sighted a shark from Capetown 
to Southampton, though there were many cases of 
sickness on board, mid one of the passengers was 
buried at sea. Probably all the sharks were busy 
following in the wake of other vessels ! 

This old superstition is well brought out in a 



SHARKS SCENTING DEATH. 43 

poem entitled "The Return of the Admiral," by 
Procter : 

" How gallantly, how merrily 

We ride along the sea ! 
The morning is all sunshine, 

The wind is blowing free : 
The billows are all sparkling, 
And bounding in the light." 



But 



"In our wake, like any servant, 
Follows ever the bold shark." 



Then the admiral of the fleet, who 

" Grew paler 
And paler as we flew," 

" Spied the creature 
That kept following in our lee." 

He seemed to be aware of the direful augury, for 

" He shook — 'twas but an instant ; 
For speedily the pride 
Ran crimson to his heart. 
Till all chances he defied." 

But the admiral's defiance was in vain, for 

"That night a horrid whisper 

Fell on us where we lay; 
And we knew our fine old admiral 

Was changing into clay; 
And we heard the wash of waters, 

Though nothing could we see. 
And a whistle and a plunge 

Among the billows in our lee ! 



44 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

'Till dawn we watched the body, 

In its dead and ghastly sleep; 
And next evening, at sunset, 

It was slung into the deep ! 
And never from that moment, — 

Save one shudder through the sea, — 
Saw we or heard the shark 

That had followed in our lee ! " 

Of a less dramatic character, but bearing out the 
old superstition among sailors, is a passage in the 
biography of the late Rev. Bryan Roe, the well- 
known Wesleyan missionary, who died on the West 
Coast of Africa : — 

"Two or three sharks it may be are following in the 
vessel's wake, attracted, it would seem, by the fact that there 
is a sick man lying on board, for the old and weather-beaten 
quartermaster confidentially informs the clerical passenger 
[Mr. Roe] that he will soon have a burial job on hand. The 
quartermaster is always an authority on the subject of 
sharks. 'Them there sharks,' he explains, 'have more sense 
in them than most Christshuns. They know wot's wot, I 
can tell yer; doctors ain't in it with sharks. I've heard 
sharks larf when the doctor has told a sick man he was con- 
valescent — larf, sir, outright, 'cos they knew what a blessed 
mistake he was making. They are following up the scent of 
a man on board now that's going to die, and they'll not leave 
us until such times be as they gets him.'" 

I am afraid that the "old and weather-beaten 
quartermaster " was imposing on the credulity of the 
passengers when he went so far in his sailor-like 
love of "yarning" as to picture sharks laughing 
outright with sinister irony ; but his narrative in the 



THE STORK. 45 

main, as it is reported by the biographer, gives a very 
fair description of the popular superstition among 
sea-going men. As a matter of fact, I think we may 
more reasonably assume that sharks follow in the 
wake of vessels for the same reason that all large 
fish do, solely for the scraps of meat and other 
leavings which are thrown overboard. 

Very probably instances are on record when 
sharks have been observed following vessels on 
which a sailor or passenger has subsequently died ; 
but such a coincidence in no way proves that they 
have scented death, or seen the ' ' dread form of the 
Angel of Death." Why is not the same faculty 
extended to the porpoises which play around the 
vessel's bows, or to the "wailing sea-birds" which 
hover about the vessel's rigging? 



GOOD OMENS. 

"The signs are lucky all, and right. 
There hath not been a voice, or flight, 
Of ill presage." — Ben Jonson. 

Happily every creature is not placed on the black 
list of those whose melancholy mission is to fore- 
tell calamities. There are, on the other hand, many 
whose purpose is said to be exactly the reverse — to 
augur good luck, peace, happiness; and curiously 
enough most of these prognosticators are birds. 
The Stork, that " emblem of true piety," is a bird 



46 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

whose presence is regarded as an augury of good 
fortune in almost all countries where it is known. In 
Holland and Germany at the present day the in- 
habitants give the birds every encouragement to 
make their nests on the roofs of the houses, and 
fortunate is the man supposed to be whose house the 
storks choose for this purpose. 

Longfellow, in an American song, "To the Stork," 
very beautifully illustrates this belief: 

" Welcome, O Stork ! that dost wing 
Thy flight from far away ! 
Thou hast brought us the signs of spring, 
Thou hast made our sad hearts gay. 

Descend, O Stork ! descend 

Upon our roof to rest; 
In our ash-tree, O my friend. 

My darling, make thy nest." 

In the " Golden Legend" the same poet represents 
the bird as a direct gift from God. Speaking of the 
good Prince Henry, Bertha asks : 

" Did he give us the beautiful stork above 
On the chimney-top, with its large round nest ? " 

And Gottlieb replies : 

" No, not the stork. By God in heaven, 
As a blessing, the dear white stork was given." 

The reverence for the stork dates back to very an- 
cient times. The Egyptians paid it the Same reverence 
as the sacred Ibis ; the Thessalonians were restricted 



THE stork's devotion. 47 

from doing the bird an injury ; the Romans regarded 
it as a bird of good augury. A Greek law compelling 
children to maintain their aged parents took its name 
from the bird, and all the numerous legends which 
have been woven round its name testify to its de^ 
votion, faithfulness, love, and, generally speaking, its 
sterling character. Was it not into a stork that the 
pitying gods transformed Antigone when, boastful 
of her beautiful hair, the jealous Juno turned her 
locks into writhing serpents? 

As an example of the stork's devotion to its young 
ones, we are told that on a fire occurring in the city 
of Delft, the parent, after making strenuous efforts 
to rescue them without success, permitted herself to 
perish with them in the flames. The stork's faithful- 
ness to its mate is brought out in a story that the 
male bird, rather than desert his partner when she 
was wounded at the time of migrating, spent the 
winter months by her side tenderly providing for her 
needs. Its filial devotion is said to be so great that 
when the parent is too old to fly the young bird 
carries her on his back, and supplies her with food : 

" When age had seized and made his dam 
Unfit for flight, the grateful young one takes 
His mother on his back, provides her food, 
Repaying thus her tender care of him 
Ere he was fit to fly." 

But here, I am afraid, we are straying into the 
realms of fiction. While there is hardly room to 



48 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

doubt that the devoted bird at Delft yielded up its 
life in preference to deserting its young — an act of 
maternal solicitude which would be equalled by many 
a little bird in the hedgerows, — or that it watched 
faithfully by the side of its wounded mate, we must 
look with suspicion on a stork carrying its infirm 
old parent about like a Kaffir with a piccaninny on 
her hips. 

Such stories as these have, no doubt, served to 
strengthen the Eastern belief in the stork as a bird of 
good augury ; but there are passages in the Armenian 
song referred to above which seem to show that, like 
the swallow, the bird is welcomed more particularly 
as a harbinger of spring. 

" Thou hast brought us the signs of spring " 

is very suggestive of this idea, as are also two verses 
descriptive of the change of weather which followed 
the stork's return to a warmer climate : 

" When thou away didst go, 
Away from this tree of ours, 
The withering winds did blow. 
And dried up all the flowers. 

Dark grew the brilliant sky. 

Cloudy and dark and drear ; 
They were breaking the snow on high. 

And winter was drawing near." 

" Swift-winged and pleasing harbinger of spring,'' 
a title given by a Yorkshire poet to the Swallow, 



LUCKY SWALLOWS. 49 

gives us a clue to the peculiar veneration in which 
these birds are universally held. By the ancients 
they were placed among those requiring special 
honour, the Romans believing that the spirits of 
departed children took up their abode in the bodies 
of these graceful birds, and in this way came periodi- 
cally to visit their old homes. But this pretty myth 
only helps to strengthen the supposition that it is as 
"a harbinger of spring" that the swallow obtains 
its title of a bird of good augury, and this belief is 
implanted deep in the hearts of even little children. 
Dryden tells us that 

" Swallows are unlucky birds to kill," 

and Pope that 

"Children sacred held a Martin's nest;" 

and any schoolboy, though perhaps he may not be 
able to give a reason for his belief, will tell us that to 
destroy a swallow's nest will bring "bad luck." 
Among young people the ancient fable which tells us 
why 

" Progne makes on chimney-tops her moan. 
And hovers o'er the palace once her own," 

can have no influence over their feelings; nor in 
England is the swallow, as it is in Sweden, 
associated in any way with the Crucifixion of our 
Lord. 

In addition to believing that bad luck will result 



50 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

from killing- a swallow or destroying its nest, many 
people believe that precisely the reverse will obtain 
if swallows build under their eaves, and very great 
care is taken to prevent the birds from being fright- 
ened or molested. There is a passage in Hood 
which seems to refer to this belief: 

" But bid the sacred swallow haunt his eaves 
To guard his roof from lightning and from thieves." 

While touring in Turkey some years ago, I was 
very much interested in a pair of swallows which 
had the temerity to build a nest on a bracket inside 
a coffee-house near Constantinople. The bracket, 
which was not more than seven feet from the ground, 
had apparently been placed on the wall for the birds' 
special benefit, and they showed their appreciation 
by treating the host and his customers as confidential 
promoters of the scheme. The swallows left and 
entered the apartment by means of the doorway, 
which was also used by the customers,' and so little 
did they fear "the unspeakable Turk," that they 
frequently passed close to his face when they hap- 
pened to meet him coming in or going out. The 
presence of the birds seemed to give the proprietor 
immense satisfaction, and I have no doubt he would 
stoutly have prevented their receiving any molesta- 
tion; but whether he considered them harbingers of 
"good luck" I cannot say. 

Yet while it is not every one who desires to have 
swallows nesting on their buildings, chiefly in con- 



THE ROBIN AND THE WREN. 51 

sequence of the dirt which is made by the birds and 
their young, there are very few people who would 
wantonly break their nests or frighten them away. 
' ' When they go they take your luck away with 
them," is a common saying. Not more than a few 
months ago I was told about a farmer who had 
destroyed a number of swallows' nests on his house 
and barns, ever since which time the swallows had 
refused to colonise on his farm buildings, and he had 
experienced a series of misfortunes. 

Whether the original builders of a nest which has 
been destroyed will return at another season to the 
place of the depredation seems to be somewhat a 
moot question. I have known of nests remaining 
in a broken state for many summers after they have 
been destroyed, the swallows apparently refusing, 
through fear or vexation, to rebuild the old habita- 
tions. That sometimes swallows will repair old 
nests which have ruthlessly been damaged has been 
amply proved, but it is very doubtful whether the 
birds have been the same as those which built them 
in the first instance. 

While 

" The martin and the swallow 
Are God Almighty's bow and arrow," 

it is also said that 

" The robin and the wren 
Are God Almighty's cock and hen;" 

and nothing but ill fortune would attend the 



52 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

callous man who dared to do an injury to our 
pugnacious little friend the Redbreast, and his tiny 
wife Jenny Wren. 

" Him that harries their nest, 
Never shall his soul have rest," 

says a popular rhyme. Another tells us that 

" If you go to catch a robin. 
You will come back a-sobbing;" 

or in similar words — 

" The red on the breast of a robin that's sought, 
Brings blood to the snarer by whom it is caught ;" 

or still further — 

" A robin in a cage 
Sets all heaven in a rage." 

Truly, a " robin in a cage " is a rare as well as an 
unnatural and disagreeable sight. I shall not soon 
forget the displeasing impression made upon my 
own feelings, and upon those of many others, 
on seeing a robin imprisoned in a pretty painted 
cage in a side-show. The bird seemed altogether 
out of place — a little martyr, a fluffy, pathetic appeal 
to our tenderest natures. Yet, why so more than 
any other bird " fastened and imprisoned behind 
bars"? Can it be that the melancholy fate of the 
"breast burned bird" told in the tales of our 



THE CUCKOO. 53 

childhood still linger with us and bring forth our 
compassion ? If so, long may they linger and 
create sympathies and tender feelings which in 
these days are all too rare. Happily the pretty 
redbreast, stained with the blood of our Redeemer 
(so fables tell us), is yet to be seen in our crofts 
and on our window-sills, and the appearance of the 
pugnacious little visitor in our rooms is accepted 
both as a sign of confidence in our goodwill and an 
augury of good fortune. 



The Cuckoo — 

" Darling of the spring," 

as Wordsworth endearingly calls it, is another bird 
whose name is synonymous with good luck, and 
this very probably because, like the swallow and 
the stork, its appearance is significant of spring's 
sweet advent. 

" Hark, how the jolly cuckoos sing 
'Cuckoo!' to welcome in the spring." 

—John Lyly. 

Whatever you may wish, folks say, when first you 
hear the cuckoo's call, your wish will be gratified. 
But a very ancient tradition insists that in order to 
obtain good luck, especially in affairs of love, it 
is necessary to hear the notes of the nightingale 



54 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

first. To go back only to the days of Chaucer, we 
learn — 

" How lovers had a tokening, 
And among hem it was a commune tale 
That it were good to here the nightingale 
Rather than the leud cuckow sing.'' 

And the poet tells how, half-asleep and half-awake — 

" I hearde sing 
The sorry bird, the leud cuckow. 
And that was on a tree right fast by, 
But who was than evill apaid but I ? 
' Now God,' quod I, ' that died on the crois, 
Yeve sorrow on thee, and on thy leud vois. 
Full little joy have I now of thy cry.' 

"And as I with the cuckow thus gan chide, 
I heard in the next bush beside 
A nightingale so lustely sing 
That with her clere voice she made ring 
Through all the greene wood wide. 



(£ ( 



Ah, good nightingale,' quod I then, 
' A little hast thou ben too long hen. 
For here hath ben the leud cuckow, 
And songen songs rather than hast thou, 
I pray to God evill fire her bren.' " 

Milton, in his " Ode to the Nightingale," referring 
to the same superstition, writes: 

" O nightingale, that on yonder blooming spray 
Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still: 
Thou with fresh hopes the lover's heart dost fill, 
While the jolly Hours lead on propitious May. 



THE cuckoo's call. 55 

The liquid notes that close the eyes of day. 
First heard before the shallow cuckoo's bill, 
Portend success in love; O if Jove's will 
Have linked that amorous power to thy soft lay, 
Now timely sing, ere the rude bird of hate 
Foretell my hopeless doom in some grove nigh." 

Chaucer's reference to the cuckoo as a " leud bird," 
and Milton's condemnation of it as "a rude bird of 
hate " arise, no doubt, from its association with un- 
faithfulness in marriage. Probably its own singular 
habit of leaving its eggs to be hatched by other birds 
has been the origin of this association. Chaucer 
represents the bird as cynical in the extreme in its 
view of love and matrimony. When the nightingale 
has so beautifully been singing of the virtues which 
love engenders, the cuckoo sarcastically observes: 

" Nightingale, thou speakest wonder faire, 
But for all that is the sooth contraire. 
For love is in young folke but rage, 
And in old folke a great dotage, 
Who most it useth, most shall enpaire." 

The cry of the cuckoo is supposed to denote 
mockery, and one of our old English words having 
this significance is derived from the Latin word 
cuculus-^a. cuckoo. 

Shakespeare, in the song which closes Love's 
Labour's Lost, uses the note of the cuckoo to convey 
this meaning: 

" When daisies pied, and violets blue, 
And lady-smocks all silver white, 



56 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue, 

Do paint the meadows with delight, 
The cuckoo then, on every tree, 
Mocks married men; for thus sings he. 

Cuckoo; 
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear, 
Unpleasing to a married ear !" 

Poor cuckoo ! What senseless havoc does man's 
imagination make of Natural History ! Through the 
construction of a stupid fable the cuckoo's "jolly 
voice" becomes "leud," "hated," and " a word of 
fear." Still, not so, I hope, to most of us. We 
listen with a rejoicing sense of approaching summer, 
with all its full verdure and warmth, as once again 
the curious voice of the hidden bird rings out. And 
among the poets, too, the bird is not wanting for 
friendship. Spenser called it 

" The met^y Cuckow, messenger of spring." 

John Lyly describes it as "jolly"; Wordsworth 
" delights" in the voice of the " blithe new-comer''; 
and John Logan, the Scotch poet, in a gem of poetry 
devoted to a eulogy of the bird, hails it as '■^beauteous 
stranger of the grove." The poem is so delicate and 
true to nature that I would like to reprint it here in 
its entirety; three verses, however, must suffice: 

" Hail, beauteous stranger of the grove ! 
Thou messenger of spring ! 
Now Heaven repairs thy rural seat. 
And woods thy welcome sing. 



A BLACK CAT FOR LUCK. 57 

What time the daisy decks the green, 

Thy certain voice we hear; 
Hast thou a star to guide thy path, 

Or mark the rolling year ? 

Delightful visitant ! with thee 

I hail the time of flowers, 
And hear the sound of music sweet 

From birds among the bowers/' 

Similar to the expression of a wish on hearing the 
cuckoo call is the belief that ' ' any wish will come 
true " if made on seeing the first lamb of the season, 
and there is no reservation in this case about seeing 
or hearing any other animal first. This wholesale 
kind of wishing, however, is hardly to be commended, 
for though it may be lucky for the person expressing 
the wish, it may be very unlucky for other people. 
Then it is also said that a piebald or white horse is 
an animal which brings good luck ; but some people 
add that you must express your wish before you 
think of its tail, a reservation which makes the act of 
wishing an impossibility. I can well remember how, 
when I was a schoolboy, it was our invariable custom 
to expectorate over our little fingers on seeing a 
white or piebald horse in order to secure good luck. 
From the results up to date I must admit I have 
not very abundant faith in this particular form of 
superstition. Perhaps, however, I thought of their 
tails ! 

A black Cat without a single white hair in its fur 
is almost universally regarded as a "lucky animal," 



58 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

and quite a large number of people keep a black cat 
for no other reason than to ensure prosperity. Woe 
be to the foolish person who turns one of these sable 
augurs from his door ; and woe, some people say, to 
those from whose door the animal turns of its own 
accord. Quite recently a lady told me with great 
distress she had lost her cat. "I should not have 
minded," she said, " but it was perfectly black." 

The following instance of superstitious belief in 
black cats appeared in the March (1903) issue of the 
"Badminton Magazine," the subject of the remarks 
being Prince Ranjitsinhji : — 

" The Prince has a great superstition in black cats, and the 
appearance of one at a shooting gathering serves to convince 
him in advance of a fine morning plus a fine bag, and singu- 
larly enough, it always turns out so. Twice in succession, he 
claims, has the timely appearance of a black cat been instru- 
mental in winning a county match for Sussex in addition to 
other occasions." 

A superstitious belief in cats, black or otherwise, 
is of very great antiquity. Among the Egyptians the 
animals were regarded with the utmost reverence, 
and their mummified remains, a cargo of which was 
imported to England not many years ago, are fre- 
quently found in the same tombs as their worshippers. 
In witchcraft and soothsaying cats have always 
played no unimportant part, and wherever we see a 
picture or description of a witch's hovel, there too we 
shall certainly find portrayed her companion in dark- 
ness, a black cat. 



THE MONEV-SPIDER. 5g 

" In a dirtie Haire-Iace 
She leads on a brace 
Of black-bore-cats to attend her 
Who scratch at the Moone, 
And threaten at noone 
Of night from Heaven to render her.'' 

— i%mV^("TheHag"). 

One of the special ingredients in the filthy concoc- 
tions with which these hags were supposed to work 
their villainy was the brains of a black cat. Ben 
Jonson, in his Masque of Queens, mentions this 
ingredient in the song sung by the witches : 

" I from the jaws of a gardenfer's bitch, 
Did snatch these bones and then leaped the ditch: 
Yet I went back to the house again, 
Killed the black cat, and here's the brain." 

A well-known superstition existing at the present 
day is that a very minute species of Spider, commonly 
known as the " Money-spider" or " Money-spinner," 
will, by creeping upon one's hand, bring good fortune 
— for preference a legacy. Even timid ladies, who 
would fall in a faint were any other creeping thing to 
touch them, will allow the little " Money-spinner" to 
crawl upon them with impunity, hoping that by per- 
mitting it to do so some form of good luck will 
ensue. 

While writing upon the subject of spiders it will 
not be out of place to mention the popular belief that 
to kill a spider will certainly cause rain to fall. I 
have met with this superstition in several parts of the 

S 



6o SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

country. In a small town in the West Riding of 
Yorkshire not long ago, I saw a youngster intently 
watching a spider making its way across a pavement, 
or "causeway" as it is called in those parts. Pres- 
ently, when the spider was about to reach a place of 
safety, the boy raised his foot to crush the little 
creature, but his nurse, who was quick enough to 
prevent him, cried out with some alarm, "No, don't 
kill it, or we shall have rain to-morrow." 



DISTORTED NATURAL HISTORY. 

" O Lord, how manifold are thy works ! in wisdom hast 
thou made them all : the earth is full of thy riches. 

So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping 
innumerable, both small and great beasts. 

The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever : the Lord 
shall rejoice in his works." 

— Psalm civ. 

Apart from signs and omens, there is a form of 
superstition which owes its origin largely to ignor- 
ance in respect of the animal kingdom. This is a 
surprising and pathetic fact, for it obviously shows 
that few people are really interested in the marvellous 
and beautiful creatures with which God has blessed 
the earth. To me every creature He has made is an 
object for wonder and admiration. Like Cowper, 

" Cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime 
In still-repeated circles, screaming loud, 
The jay, the pie, and even the boding owl 
That hails the rising moon, have charms for me." 

And I may also add snakes, and toads, and slugs, 
and blackbeetles. In each there is much that is 
marvellous, that is beyond our limited comprehen- 
sion, and not one atom of which can we design much 



62 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

more create. But how very few there are who take so 
much interest in the various "birds of the air and 
beasts of the field " that they will look into books of 
natural history to find out what kind of a world 
they live in ! 

Much of this superstition is almost as amusing as 
it is extravagant. We hear, for instance, that a cat 
has nine lives ; that an earwig creeps into people's 
ears and investigates their brains ; that a goatsucker 
(or night-hawk, night-jar, etc.) sucks milk from goats 
or cows ; that adders are deaf ; blind-worms are 
blind ; snakes are slimy, can fascinate, and sting ; 
toads are venomous; and so on, each of which is 
equal to, if not surpassing, the ridiculed "annual" 
of the sea-serpent. And it is chiefly because people 
take so little interest in the wonders of natural 
history, and accept in perfectly good faith the stupid 
theories handed down from their great-grandmothers, 
that these ancient fables are still credited. A cat, let 
it be said, has only one life, even though it be a pretty 
tough one ; an earwig has not the least desire to 
creep into people's ears, and if it got there by 
accident would be extremely uncomfortable ; adders 
can hear as well as any other kind of snake ; blind- 
worms have eyes and can use them in good style; 
snakes are not slimy — they are dry, and they cannot, 
in my opinion, fascinate, and assuredly they cannot 
sting, they bite ; and a toad is not venomous. But, 
in spite of books and lectures on natural history, 
extravagant stories of the animal kingdom will still 



THE CAT AS BAROMETER. 63 

hold their ground, because it is so much easier to 
take things for granted than to inquire for oneself. 

Let us take, as an example of popular credulity, 
the yarns which are told about that best known of all 
four-footed creatures, our own domestic cat. She is 
regarded almost universally as an unerring baro- 
meter. If she sits with her back to the fire, she lets 
you know that you must bring out your goloshes and 
waterproof coats; if she washes over her ears, you 
must expect sunshine; if she scampers about the 
garden in a madcap fashion, be prepared for a high 
wind. As a matter of fact, our feline friend turns her 
back to the fire for the same reason that our grand- 
mothers wear a shawl — to keep their backs warm; 
and surely the cleanly creature can attend a little 
more carefully to her toilet, or show an extra degree 
of animal spirits, without indicating a change in the 
state of the weather. But so implicitly do many 
people believe in a cat's ability to act as a barometer 
that they will actually consult its attitude and 
practices before undertaking a journey. On this 
subject Mr. Louis Wain, the well-known "cat artist" 
and authority on all feline matters, was recently 
interviewed by a Great Thoughts representative. 
Asked as to whether his study of cats and their ways 
led him to believe in the theory that they often act as 
barometers, Mr. Wain vigorously replied, " No, I do 
not think that because a cat washes her face it will 
necessarily be a fine day on the morrow." And he 
proceeded to explain the habit in a way that I had 



64 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

not heard of previously — " I think they do that 
merely to complete an electrical circuit, for by so 
doing it generates heat, and therefore a pleasing 
sensation in the fur." 

A terrible charge which is brought against cats in 
general is that of sucking breath from sleeping 
infants after the manner of Ben Jonson's blood- 
curdling hags. If this charge were true, or there 
were even doubt about it, then every cat should 
forthwith be unceremoniously turned out of doors, 
and branded as an enemy of mankind. But happily 
there is no truth in the allegation whatever. What 
actually occurs is this : cats have sometimes been 
known to lie on the breasts of sleeping babes in 
order to obtain warmth, and in so doing have unin- 
tentionally pressed the breath from the little sleepers' 
bodies, thereby causing suiFocation. 

A superstition which is equally untrue, but much 
more poetical, is that a Toad carries in its head a 
/ precious jewel, usually said to be a pearl. John 
Bunyan was amongst those who, in days of old, 
gave this remarkable fable their support. In his 
apology for his great work, Tfie Pilgrim's Progress, 
he wrote : 



" If that a pearl may in a toad's head dwell, 
And may be found too in an oyster-shel), 
If things that promise nothing do contain 
What better is than gold — who will disdain 
That have an inkling of it there to look 
That they may find it?" 



JEWEL IN toad's head. 65 

Shakespeare, in As You Like It, mentions the super- 
stition in the following passage : 

" Sweet are the uses of adversity, 
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous. 
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head." 

It is supposed by many that in writing of the 
" precious jewel," Shakespeare intended to suggest 
the toad's clear, bright eye, which could indeed very 
fittingly be described by that term. But it is very 
evident that Bunyan had no such intention when he 
referred to the pearl as being "found too in an 
oyster-shell." It cannot be said of an oyster that it 
has eyes which can be likened to jewels. I need 
hardly say that if this old-time superstition were 
true — that a toad carries in its head a precious jewel 
— some American magnate would long ago have 
made a corner in toads. 

It is a common idea also that the toad is a 
venomous creature, and apparently this superstition 
has been prevalent wherever the toad has existed. 
From the writings of our poets we can measure the 
aversion with which this poor batrachian is generally 
regarded. Beginning with Spenser, we find him 
speaking of 

" The grieslie tode stoole growne mought I se. 
And loathed Paddocks [toads] lording on the same." 

In the foregoing passage from Shakespeare we 
have noticed that the dramatist describes the toad as 



65 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

being "ugly and venomous," and in Richard III. 
he again refers to it in the words : 

" Never hung ioMX^x poison on a toad. 
Out of my sight, thou dost infect mine eyesj" 

and again in King Henry VI. (Part III.): 

"Marked by the destinies to be avoided as venom 
toads." 

Pope, in one of his satires, describing the char- 
acter of a certain "Sporus," mentions the toad's 
alleged habit of spitting venom: 

" At the ear of Eve, familiar toad. 
Half froth, half venom spits himself abroad." 

Chatterton also denounces the unfortunate crea- 
ture: 

" Ye toads, your venom in my footpath spread ; " 

while Giflford, portraying the jealousy of Weston, 
uses the toad as an example in a way which is very 
hard on the reptile: 

"Weston! who slunk from truth's imperious light. 
Swells like a filthy toad with secret spite, 
And, envying the fame he cannot hope. 
Spits his black venom at the dust of Pope. 
Reptile accursed ! " 

Browning, among more modern poets, in his 



VENOMOUS TOADS. 67 

" Pied Piper," also regards the toad as an enemy of 
mankind : 



" Creatures that do people harm — 
The mole and toad and newt and viper.'' 



Perhaps it is scarcely necessary to say that the 
supposition that a toad is venomous is quite un- 
warranted. No reptile, or batrachian, strictly speak- 
ing, could be less harmful or more useful than our 
little friend Bufo. It is true that when molested he 
exudes from his skin a slimy, acrid substance, which 
is nauseating to animals that venture to take hold 
of him, though I have never heard of one being 
poisoned thereby. And as this exudation is the timid 
creature's sole means of defence, and as it prevents 
him receiving more molestation than he already has 
to put up with, we Can only admire the Providence 
which bestowed it upon him. I have kept many 
toads as pets, and have found them to be harmless 
and interesting, and not wanting in intelligence. 
They became so tame that they would feed from my 
hands, and so soon as they knew they had nothing to 
fear from being handled and examined in a way 
which could not have been pleasant, they ceased to 
exude their glandular secretion. 

There is a story told of a drunken man who for a 
wager, in a public-house, chewed a toad's head off 
and subsequently became dangerously ill. The dirty 
ruffian ! But this mad trick in no way proved that 



68 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

the toad was "venomous." The acrid secretion in 
the toad's skin would be quite sufficient to cause the 
man's illness. Many another creature which is pro- 
vided by a good and wise Providence with a peculiar 
secretion for self-defence would have brought on the 
same illness if treated in the same disgusting way ; 
not a few beetles and flies could be named amongst 
this number. The idea of a toad spitting venom is, 
of course, ludicrous, though it is even to-day a very 
common belief, especially among children. 

It has been pointed out to me that the " venom " 
of toads may have reference to the viscous secretion 
on their tongues, by which they lay hold of the insects 
and other " small fry" which form their diet. This 
substance, it is said, when brought into contact with 
a wound will cause serious illness, and has been 
known even to result in death. There, however, 
seems to be nothing in this contention. Not long 
ago the newspapers told us that a scratch by a cat 
had caused a man's death, and the bite of a dog, even 
when the animal was in perfect health, has been 
known to set up acute blood poisoning. I should 
be very chary of letting the saliva of any kind of 
animal come in contact with a cut or sore; but if 
such happened by accident, and I were in con- 
sequence to suffer from blood poisoning, I should 
not denounce that animal as "venomous." 

"It is strange," says the author of the famous 
Natural History of Selborne, "that the matter with 
regard to the venom of toads has not yet been 



TOADS AS MEDICINE. 69 

settled." This was in 1768. In the minds of 
naturalists the question, I believe, is now entirely 
settled, though Frank Buckland regarded the toad as 
poisonous. But amongst the mass of people there is 
still, and I am afraid always will be, a firm-rooted 
opinion that the toad is a venomous creature, and it 
is loathed and detested accordingly. Schoolboys — 
pitiless in their treatment of things they dislike — 
stone it and pelt it as they did ages ago, fearful of 
going too near it lest it should spit its venom upon 
them. Probably I stoned it myself when I was a 
youngster — I hope not ! — for I believed it to be an 
evil and vicious thing ; and poor, unoffending, useful 
little creature, it seems to bear upon it a brand of 
evil, not a precious jewel, and will be hated and per- 
secuted for evermore. 

In White's Selborne there is an interesting entry 
with reference to the healing of cancer by the appli- 
cation of a toad, though it does not appear that the 
"cure" obtained a very widespread popularity. 
"Several intelligent persons," says White, "both 
gentry and clergy, do, I find, give a great deal of 
credit to what is asserted in the papers, and I myself 
dined with a clergyman who seemed to be persuaded 
that what is related is matter of fact." But Mr. 
White, rightly, was very sceptical as to the efficacy 
of this horrible nostrum, and believed that the 
woman who claimed to work the " cancer cures" 
"finds it expedient to amuse the country with this 
dark and mysterious relation." 



70 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS, 

General credence has been given to the theory 
that toads are able to live for long ages in solid 
blocks of stone without the possibility of nourish- 
ment reaching them. In scientific minds this theory 
for long enough found acceptance, and to-day there 
are many well-informed people who still give it their 
support. In order to put the popular belief — much 
more popular then than now — to a thorough definite 
test, Dr. Buckland, father of the well-known natural- 
ist, deposited twenty-four toads in cells carved out 
of stone, covered with glass for purposes of inspec- 
tion. Twelve of the cells were twelve inches by five 
inches, made in coarse oolitic limestone, and twelve, 
six inches by five inches, in compact siliceous sand- 
stone, the former being so porous as to be easily 
permeable by water, and probably by air, but the 
latter being very compact. These blocks of stone 
containing the unfortunate prisoners, twelve of them 
being large toads and twelve small, were placed in 
Dr. Buckland's garden beneath three feet of earth on 
November 26th, 1825. Within thirteen months of 
this date all the toads in the sandstone and the small 
toads in the limestone were dead, although the glass 
in some instances had been cracked, and in one of 
the cells "a large assemblage of minute insects" 
was found. Before the end of the second year all 
the large toads in the limestone were also dead. 
Dr. Buckland also tried the experiment of placing 
toads in holes cut in the trunk of an apple-tree, 
with the result that at the end of a year "every 



TOADS IMPRISONED IN ROCK. 7 1 

one of the toads was dead, and their bodies were 
decayed." 

A few years ago, while excavations were being 
made in the North of England, a living toad was 
discovered which apparently must have been en- 
tombed for many years in the solid rock. In order 
that the circumstances might be scientifically in- 
vestigated and reported upon, the toad was sent 
to the Rev. Dr. Tristram, F.R.S., to whom I am 
greatly indebted for a letter giving the features of 
the report, which he published in the Press at the 
conclusion of his investigations. 

" It proved," he says, "that the animal could not have been 
for very long where it was found. It was a female full of 
spawn, and in the stomach were various insects, chiefly ear- 
wigs and small beetles, and also bits of straw and a small 
maggot, but no winged insects. It must have fallen down a 
crevice, and unable to escape (probably having fallen when 
very small) depended for food on such substances as acci- 
dently fell into the cavity which imprisoned it. It had only 
partially shed its skin, not having had room to throw it off, 
and it still adhered to the fore part of the body and the head. 
It may have been a year or two in the position in which it 
was found, but it is impossible that it could have existed 
there much longer. The most important piece of evidence, 
the cavity itself, was never found." 

This interesting statement, together with the 
above-mentioned experiments, proves pretty con- 
clusively that so-called imbedded or imprisoned 
toads are by some means or other provided with 
nourishment during their incarceration. But, as in 



72 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

the foregoing case, and in all others that I have 
heard or read of, the cavity in which the toad is said 
to have been imprisoned, being either partially or 
entirely missing, it is almost impossible to refute 
conclusively the assertion that the toad has been 
imprisoned for centuries, or to prove that nourish- 
ment must have been supplied through some chink 
or channel. As Dr. Buckland's experiment shows, 
toads being sluggish creatures, are able, like snakes, 
to live without any sort of food for several months ; 
but the experiment also clearly shows that they can- 
not live beyond this time entirely excluded from air 
and food. 

It is an outrage on one's reason to be asked to 
believe that any creature can exist for century 
upon century embedded in the solid rock hundreds 
of feet below the surface of the earth. Still, the 
ancient supposition has, even now, numerous 
advocates. Only a few weeks ago I was supplied 
with detailed information respecting the discovery 
of a toad found in a limestone quarry in the County 
of Durham. But in this case, as in all others of 
a similar kind, only a portion of the cavity was 
obtained, and no attempt was made to examine 
the contents of the animal's stomach. Thus the 
only two methods by which any practical decision 
could be arrived at were wanting. Yet in this 
instance we were asked to believe that the toad had 
existed in its rocky prison without air and without 
nourishment for, not only hundreds, but thousands 



SHOWERS OF FROGS. 73 

of years ; whereas there was no real kind of 
evidence to show that it had been where it was 
found for more than a few months. An argument 
used in favour of this toad's entombment — and of 
many others found under similar conditions — was 
that it could not have fallen to so great a depth 
without being killed or very much injured. Yet it is 
quite possible (as is suggested by Dr. Tristram in 
the case of the toad sent to him for examination) 
that in an early stage of its existence it drifted or 
was carried there, and had crept through a cranny 
or fissure into the cavity from which it was unable to 
find a way of returning to liberty. But for popular 
imagination it is not always necessary that there 
should even be a cavity. The very fact of finding a 
toad in a mine or quarry is in itself, to many persons, 
sufficient ground for the supposition that the animal 
must have been entombed there for countless ages. 
On the other hand, I think the assertion will com- 
mend itself generally that there can be no actual 
proof of the toad's imprisonment in the absence of 
the whole or any part of the cavity in which the 
creature is alleged to have been embedded. 

While writing on the subject of toads, it will not, 
I think, be out of place to refer to the popular belief 
— I cannot call it a superstition — that during spring- 
time myriads of small frogs fall from the clouds. 
The appearance of these hosts of minute creatures 
in our own country is so common that any person 
residing near fields may see them for himself The 



74 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

question is not one as to the creatures being there 
(as if they were arrayed for another encounter with 
the mice), but how they get there in such countless 
numbers. The general impression is that they have 
descended with a shower of rain, for it is usually 
after a rainfall that they appear. I have known of 
their appearing in such a dense mass that they have 
darkened a road for a quarter of a mile, and passing 
vehicles have killed them by thousands. 

But while the sight of myriads of small frogs 
is by no means uncommon, it is not often that 
one is able to instance a personal experience of a 
plague of large frogs. Such has, however, once, and 
only once, fallen to our lot. It was in Stellenbosch, 
Cape Colony, where this extraordinary visitation 
took place, and from a description I gave of it In 
the Dewsbury District News last year, the details 
were as follow: — 

How they arrived or whence they came was a mystery; 
but that they had come, and come on some sort of business 
of their own, was a living reality. It was about midnight 
when they arrived. The camp was silent in sleep, save for 
the nasal music of tired troopers or the neighing of horses in 
the adjacent lines. The first notice I had of their arrival 
was on being awakened by something cold alighting on my 
face. As I raised my hand to find out what the clammy 
object was, it quickly departed, and I was just about to turn 
over for another sleep, thinking I had perhaps been mis- 
taken, when one of the troopers cried out : 

" Here, chuck it ! " 

"What's up?" asked the man sleeping next to him, who 
apparently had received a prod in the ribs. 



A PLAGUE OF FROGS IN SOUTH AFRICA. 75 

" Don't go working your arms about like a blooming 
signaller," replied the other man gruffly. 

" I never moved my arms," was the reply. 

" Yes, you did ; you hit me on the face, and don't do it 
again." 

At this moment another voice chimed in: 

" Don't act the goat when a man's asleep." 

" Who's touching you ? " was the query which came in a 
sleepy voice from the same part of the tent. 

" You threw a lump of candle. I felt it hit me on the face, 
and it's a daft joke to play after ' lights out.' " 

" I swear I was asleep until you awoke me," was the reply. 

Then there arose the sound of scuffling, and a voice in 
some alarm cried out : 

" Strike a light, some of you. There's some beastly reptile 
in the tent. I felt it crawl across my face." 

At once a candle was lighted, and a strange spectacle 
met our eyes : the tent was alive with frogs. They were 
squatting on the boxes, on the saddlery, on our rugs and 
coverings. Frogs everywhere ! As we sprang from the 
ground the little reptiles began to leap about wildly in their 
excitement to escape, and boots and mess-tins and odds and 
ends of accoutrements were soon flying in all directions. 
Not for long enough did we get rid of our nocturnal visitors, 
but where they went to we could not discover, as there was 
no water near by. Their appearance and disappearance 
always remained a mystery. Many times subsequently I 
noticed that after a shower of rain each pool would be alive 
with croaking frogs, and I have seen tadpoles swimming 
about in a bowl outside a tent, though the bowl was empty 
and without animal life a little while previously. 

My nocturnal visit from this army of full-grown 
frogs was more humorous than surprising, though 
there certainly was an element of mystery in the 
spasmodic way in which they appeared and dis- 
appeared, and my inability to remember whether 

6 



76 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

their advent was signalised by one of those swift 
deluges of rain which are characteristic of South 
Africa makes the circumstances still more mys- 
terious. But the presence of innumerable loud- 
voiced frogs in pools quickly formed by heavy 
showers of rain was of very common occurrence, 
and my attention was more fixed on the harmonious 
chorus they made — some snapping like castanets, 
others tolling like bells — than how they congregated. 
My own impression, now that I have thought more 
of the matter, is that the frogs were scattered about 
the Karroo previous to the downfalls, and assembled 
in the pools as they were formed. My attention was 
naturally attracted to the animals only when they 
were gathered together, and even then I probably 
should not have noticed them save for their vocal 
performances. 

The case of the tadpoles is, however, quite of a 
different kind. Here we had, after a rainfall, the 
appearance of numerous little creatures in a vessel 
which previously stood empty. That they were 
unable to struggle over the ground and leap into 
the vessel was unquestionable; but it was also 
unquestionable that they had got into the vessel, 
and no one was sufficiently interested in them to 
place them there. I could not do otherwise than 
believe that they had descended with the rain, though 
I did not, as I should have done, examine the ground 
near by to ascertain whether or not other tadpoles 
had fallen besides those in the tin. Here, then, is a 



THE SALAMANDER. 77 

mystery worth unravelling'. It is a well-authenticated 
fact that volcanic dust is carried thousands of miles 
from an eruption and suspended in the air for as long 
as three or four months. Is it not possible for tad- 
poles in their very early stage of existence to be 
taken into the air and subsequently released and 
brought to earth with a downfall of rain? 

The preposterous story that Salamanders are able 
to live in fire was at one time commonly accepted 
as an ordinary fact of natural history, and seeing 
that naturalists themselves were not certain whether 
to give the reptiles credit for this remarkable power, 
or throw it aside with many other stupid notions 
which had been handed down from Aristotle and 
Pliny, it was little wonder that unenlightened persons 
accepted it with implicit faith. Fire was supposed 
to be the natural element of salamanders, as natural 
as water is to a fish. 

" As if their wisdoms had conspir'd 
The salamander should be burned, 
Or like those sophists, that would drown a fish." 

It was believed that they were engendered by 
terrific heat just as chickens are hatched by the 
warmth of the hen's body. But not only were the 
creatures presumed to be impervious to heat and 
actually brought to life in furnaces, they were also 
credited, with the power of quenching flames by 
merely being brought in contact with them. 



78 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Quackery was even going to the extreme of 
creating schemes by which salamanders might be 
brought into the service of mankind as fire-engines. 
And so devotedly did the common people cling to 
these monstrous fables, upheld in their belief by the 
credulity of early naturalists, that it was not until 
repeated experiments had been made with the 
unfortunate reptiles that the superstitions were 
completely exposed, and folk settled down to 
believe they had hitherto accepted the wildest 
nonsense as "gospel truth." Still the ancient 
belief is not altogether dead. The salamander is 
yet to many people "the creature that lives in 
flames," and articles of domestic utility such as 
"salamander wool," a kind of asbestos, and "the 
salamander," a poker-like article for stimulating 
fires, help to keep the old superstition alive. 

An experiment, such as I have alluded to for 
testing the salamander's imperviousness to heat, 
is vividly described in John Wesley's Survey of the 
Wisdom of God in Creation, an exhaustive and 
clever, though, of course, unreliable natural history, 
contemporary with Goldsmith's. Mr. Wesley, in 
writing of the salamander, says that there is no 
ground for the belief that it is able to live in fire, yet 
at the same time asserts that salamanders are to be 
found "near furnaces where the heat is so great 
that no other animal could endure it without being 
destroyed in a few minutes." But the eminent 
divine makes no attempt to give a reason for his 



A SALAMANDER IN FLAMES. 79 

assertion, nor does he give one instance to prove 
it. He then goes on to describe an experiment 
which was made by several interested gentlemen 
to discover whether it was a fact that salamanders 
could " really live in fire." 

" Some charcoal," he says, "was kindled and the 
animal laid upon the burning coals. Immediately 
it emitted a black liquor which entirely quenched 
them. They lighted more coals, and laid it upon 
them. It quenched them a second time in the 
same manner. But being presently laid on a fresh 
firej it was in a short time burned to ashes." 

Little wonder, poor creature ! From this descrip- 
tion it would seem that Mr. Wesley had rejected 
one ridiculous story to accept another equally stupid 
and void of truth. It is quite probable that the 
description is exaggerated beyond all likeness to 
the actual experiment. At the same time, it is by 
no means improbable that a salamander, or for 
that matter a frog, a toad, or indeed any creature 
having a glandular secretion in the skin, might 
be able to endure an exceptional measure of heat 
much in the same way as one is able to pick up 
hot substances with the fingers by simply wetting 
them. 

The fear and disgust with which people regard all 
kinds of creeping things, without respect to their 
nature or usefulness, is exemplified by the remarkable 
aversion that is shown to the harmless common 



8o SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Newt. Needless to say, these little batrachians, 
many of which I have found most interesting pets, 
are incapable of inflicting the least injury, and hold a 
very useful and necessary position in the animal 
kingdom. 

When Ceres wished to punish the impudent youth 
who made merry over her consumption of barley 
water she transformed him into a newt, so that he 
might be regarded with aversion, but have " no 
great power of doing injury." Still, harmless as the 
newt is, I can well remember my feeling of terror 
when, as a child, I passed near a green-covered 
duck-pond, which, I was told, was full of newts, or 
efts, that were "poisonous." I thought they would 
jump out and sting me, and I ran past the pond as 
quickly and as far from it as I possibly could. Yet 
these people, whose ignorance had been the means 
of creating this childish terror, were country-bred, 
descendants of country stock, and had lived all their 
lives within a stone's-throw of the duck-pond. The 
fear of these harmless creatures is, however, of very 
ancient date. We may gather this from a passage 
in A Midsummer Nighfs Dream: 

" Newts and blindworms do no wrong, 
Come not near our fairy queen." 

As also from two lines in the Faerie Queene, in 
which Spenser writes of 

" These marishes and myrie bogs. 
In which the fearful! ewftes do build their bowres." 



SWALLOWED NEWTS. 8l 

And coming down to modern times, we find in a 
quotation which I have already given from the " Pied 
Piper of Hamelin " that the newt is mentioned among 
" creatures that do people harm." 

It will be noticed from Spenser's use of the word 
"ewftes" how the modern word "newt" has 
gradually evolved from the Anglo-Saxon "efete" 
—an "efete," an "ewfte," an " ewt," "a newt." 
In the same way we get the word "adder" — "a 
neddre," "an eddre," "an adder." 

It is within comparatively recent years that people 
in country districts, when suffering from indigestion, 
frequently attributed their abdominal pains to the 
presence of a newt which they had swallowed in its 
egg stage. Illness in cattle they sometimes put 
down to the same reason, and extraordinary means 
were adopted to get rid of the pest. Indeed, it is 
quite open to question whether the supposed malady 
was any worse than the prescription resorted to for 
the working of " a cure." For instance, which may 
be considered the worse of two evils — to give per- 
manent board and lodgings to a newt in the " pit of 
the stomach " or swallow a roasted mouse to get rid 
of it? I think I would sooner have the newt, for 
the newt would, after all, be merely imaginary, 
whereas there would be no doubt whatever about 
the mouse. It hardly need be said that such a reptile 
as a newt could not live for more than a few minutes 
in the human stomach. There have, however, been 
cases where parasites several inches in length have 



82 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

been brought up, and it is highly probable that these 
have given rise to the old superstition about newts. 



The supposition that Chameleons live on air is of 
very great antiquity and almost universal. That it 
dates back to the days of Moses seems almost 
certain, for among the unclean creeping things 
mentioned in the book of Leviticus is one which is 
translated from a word meaning "to breathe," and 
in the Revised Version is rendered " chameleon." 

This reference to breathing leaves no room to 
doubt that the ancient writer was conversant with 
the common superstition of his day; and even at 
the present time the antiquated superstition is im- 
plicitly believed in. As one might expect, poets 
have made free use of this pleasing fancy both for 
illustration and ornament. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, 
uses it in the former sense : 

" King. How fares our cousin Hamlet ? 
Hamlet. Excellent, i' faith: of the chameleon's dish: I eat 
the air promise crammed: you cannot feed capons so." 

Charles Churchill, in his humorous satire depict- 
ing the stagnation which was to fall on Scotland, 
writes : 

" No living thing, whate'er its food, feasts there 
But the chameleon who can feast on air." 

Shelley, comparing the chameleon with the poet, 
says: 



THE CHAMELEON. 83 

" Cameleons feed on light and air; 
Poets' food is love and fame." 

The reason why poets choose this light diet, he goes 
on to explain, is because they dare not "stain" 
their "heavenly mind" "with wealth or power," 
and, pressing the simile, he continues: 

" If bright cameleons should devour 
Any food but beams and wind. 
They would grow as earthly soon 
As their brother lizards are.'' 

In the same poem Shelley also refers to the 
chameleon's singular faculty of changing colour : 

" Would they ever change their hue, 
As the light cameleons do. 
Suiting it to every ray 
Twenty times a day ?" 

The idea here expressed is that the chameleon 
changes its colour to suit the hue of its environment. 
Elsewhere the same poet, still comparing a chameleon 
with a lover, mentions the phenomenon in similar 
terms : 

" As a lover or cameleon 
Grows like what it looks upon." 

The same belief occurs in a poem on "The 
Cameleon," by Matthew Prior ; 

" As the cameleon who is known 
To have no colours of his own; 
But borrows from his neighbour's hue, 
His white or black, his green or blue," 



84 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Unfortunately for poetic imagination, and, I may 
add, for the point of a speech delivered recently by a 
prominent statesman — that a certain member on the 
other side was like a chameleon, able to alter his 
colour to suit his surroundings — there is no truth in 
the supposition. It is true that chameleons have the 
faculty of changing their colour very highly developed, 
but this change is now attributed to the peculiar 
structure of their skin, influenced by their feelings 
and moods. And need it be said that whatever be 
the nature of a poet's food, chameleons require some- 
thing a little more substantial than air for their 
sustenance — a juicy fly, or a tiny luscious beetle is 
more suited to their dietary. 



Perhaps no superstition has been more used in 
illustration than that of the Crocodile shedding tears, 
and many will doubtless wonder how weeping has 
become associated with such a vicious and dangerous 
reptile as the crocodile. As we understand the term 
now, "crocodile tears" mean hypocritical lamenta- 
tions, and it is in this sense that the term is 
commonly used as a simile. The schoolmaster who 
tells a trembling youngster that the pain which he is 
about to suffer under the strokes of a supple cane are 
as nothing compared with the pain which the school- 
master himself will suffer, may properly be described 
as "crocodile tears." Or the term can accurately 
be used in connection with the young heir who weeps 



WEEPING CROCODILES. 85 

at the funeral of a crabbed and cantankerous old 
relative to whose fortune he is succeeding, while, at 
the same time, he devoutly blesses Providence for 
having removed the barrier. 

It is in this sense that Dryden uses the simile in his 
play, All for Love. Antony tells how "some few days 
hence" he will be "contracted in his narrow urn," 
and Octavia, bearing the "cold ashes" in her 
"widowed hand to Csesar," 

" Csesar will weep, the crocodile will weep, 
To see his rival of the universe 
Lie still and peaceful there." 

Sir John Suckling, describing the falseness of a 
lady, employs the simile : 

" Hast thou marked the crocodiles weeping 
Or the foxes sleeping ? 
. . . Oh ! so false, so false is she !" 

Tennyson in his pathetic poem, "The Dirge," de- 
scribing the "ravings" of the world about one who 
has finished the "long day's work" and turned to 
rest, says : 

" Crocodiles wept tears for thee ; 
The woodbine and eglatere 
Drip sweeter dews than traitor's tear. 
Let them rave." 

This idea of the weeping crocodile, which is now so 
effectively used to describe humbug and hypocrisy, is 
founded on an actual belief. In the Middle Ages, 



86 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

travellers returned from foreign climes with the 
astounding' information that crocodiles, when wishful 
of luring human beings to destruction, beguiled them 
with profuse lachrymation, and then consumed them 
with the same manifestations of sympathy and regret. 
Bacon definitely alludes to this belief when he says : 

" It is the wisdom of crocodiles that shed tears when they 
would devour." 

And Shakespeare has in his mind the same wild 
story when he makes Queen Margaret say: 

" Henry, my lord, is cold in great affairs. 
Too full of foolish pity, and Gloucester's show 
Beguiles him as the mournful crocodile 
With sorrow snares relenting passengers.'' 

This extraordinary fabrication, which bears on the 
very face of it the imprint of a mere traveller's yarn, 
was received by the credulous people of those days 
with the utmost implicitness. In the same way they 
accepted the absurd stories of " legless Birds of 
Paradise" which "lived on morning dew" and 
fragrant spices. 

" Those golden birds that, in the spice-time drop 
About the gardens, drunk with that sweet food 
Whose scent hath lur'd them o'er the summer flood. 
And those that under Araby's soft sun 
Built their high nests of budding cinnamon." 

And likewise they swallowed the equally stupid 
yarn, similar to that of the crocodile, that Hyaenas 



THE SNAIL WHICH MELTETH. 87 

cry like children in order to lure sympathetic people 
to destruction. 

"All night, the lean hyaenas their sad case 
Like starving infants wailed." 

It is curious that another old-time error is 
strengthened by Biblical reference — that a Snail 
wears itself away by its own motion. 

" As a snail which melteth," wrote the Psalmist, " let every 
one of them pass away." 

The supposition, it is perhaps hardly necessary to 
emphasise, is quite inaccurate, but if we accept it 
as a beautiful metaphor it admirably expresses the 
Psalmist's meaning. 

In a book of Scriptural Natural History, published 
in 1835, I recently came across the following choice 
morsel of information written in all seriousness upon 
this subject: — 

" This reptile [i.e., the snail] lodges in a winding shell and 
marks out its path with slime. It, therefore, wastes itself 
away by its own motion, every movement leaving part of its 
moisture behind." 

This singular quotation scarcely needs, I think, 
any comment. Had the writer taken the least 
trouble to verify his statement by actual observation 
he would not have committed so glaring and stupid 
a blunder. How different is the explanation of the 



08 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Psalmist's metaphor, given by Dr. Tristram in his 
clever and entertaining Natural History of the Bible: 

" In order to prevent the evaporation of the moisture of 
the body all these molluscs which have a thin or semi- 
transparent shell secrete themselves in dry weather. . . . 
But notwithstanding the care they take to secrete them- 
selves, the heat often dries them- up, either by a long con- 
tinued drought, or by the sun's rays penetrating to their 
holes. Thus we find in all parts of the Holy Land myriads 
of snail shells in fissures, still adhering by the calcareous 
exudation round their orifice to the surface of the rock, 
but the animal of which is utterly shrivelled and 
wasted — ' melted away,' according to the expression of 
the Psalmist." 



And now we come to Snakes ! And when I enter 
upon this part of my subject I am at an utter loss 
where to begin and where to end, for there is no other 
creature on the face of the earth of which so little 
is known and of which so much nonsense is spoken 
and written. Even the most educated people of the 
present day ascribe to snakes, or "serpents," all 
sorts of ridiculous powers and functions which the 
reptiles have never possessed, and slander them in a 
scurrilous way, that, even to snakes, is more than 
unkind. Snakes are regarded almost, perhaps I may 
say altogether, universally with the most intense 
loathing and fear ; and it is no doubt on this account 
that they have become the objects of more supersti- 
tion than any other creature. This antipathy is due 
in a very large measure, I have no doubt, to the 



SNAKES. 89 

curse pronounced upon the Serpent by the Creator 
after the downfall of our first parents : 

" Thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast 
of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt 
thou eat all the days of thy life. 

" And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and 
between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, 
and thou shalt bruise his heel." 

And speaking of the last things which shall come to 
pass, St. John, in his marvellous Revelation, de- 
scribes the seizing and binding of "that old serpent 
which is the Devil," an expression of the deepest 
loathing and contempt. 

When Christ uttered his condemnation of the 
Pharisees his invective culminated in the words ' ' Ye 
serpents, ye generation of vipers," knowing precisely 
what the simile would convey to his hearers. But 
this hatred of the "serpent tribe" does not appear 
to have been displayed before the Downfall. We are 
told that "the serpent was more subtle than any 
beast of the field," but by this we are not to under- 
stand that it was more wicked, simply wiser — "Be 
ye, therefore, wise as serpents." 

It is evident that Eve was on the most comfortable 
terms with the reptile which was to wreak so much 
havoc in the blessedness of Paradise, and she seemed 
to think it nothing out of the ordinary when the 
Serpent sidled up to make some confidential refer- 
ences to the Tree of Knowledge. Still this is not to 



go SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

be wondered at, if we accept as literal the description 
of the reptile sketched by Milton in his Paradise 
Lost. In the first place the reptile was not 
" creepy" or " crawly." He did not, so Milton tells 
us, approach her 

" With indented wave 
Prone on the ground as since." 

Quite otherwise, he came towards her "on his rear," 
by which we may suppose that his progression was 
" on end " or upright like an ordinary mortal, whose 
attitude for the moment he was, no doubt, wishful to 
imitate. But, beyond this, there is another reason 
why Milton's Serpent struck no terror into the heart 
of our first mother. Anticipating in Eve's character, 
it would seem, that love of colour and ornament 
which has been the predominant feature of all her 
daughters whatever their station, Satan arrayed 
himself to suit her taste and fancy. It was not 
as a dull-coloured, snaky, objectionable reptile he 
approached her. Satan knew his quarry. On he 
came, 

" His head 
Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes ; 
With burnished neck of verdant gold, erect 
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass 
Floated redundant: pleasing was his shape, 
And lovely; never since of serpent kind 
Lovelier." 

Poor Eve ! But even if we suppose that the blind 



FEAR OF SNAKES. 9 1 

poet had been taxing his imagination for so vivid and 
fine a description of Eve's betrayer, there is no doubt 
that from the Genesis account of the Temptation 
we may understand that Eve did not regard 
the reptile with aversion. This fearlessness had, 
however, changed to terror in the days of Pharaoh 
the persecutor of Israel. When the Lord told Moses 
to cast his rod upon the ground, and, as a conse- 
quence of his action, it became a living serpent, 
" Moses fled from before it," and man has fled from 
before it ever since. 

A few weeks ago, a singular example of this 
detestation and fear of snakes was brought to light 
at an inquest in the East End of London on the body 
of a poor bedridden youth, who was said to have 
died from fright on seeing a snake by his bedside. 
The evidence of the mother and other witnesses very 
clearly showed how exaggerated statements respect- 
ing snakes have become popular belief. Not only 
did they describe the reptile as being very much 
larger than it actually was, but they also gave lurid 
descriptions of its flashing eyes and glittering fangs, 
and the picture was made more realistic, if inaccurate, 
by a neighbour explaining how she fed the angry 
creature with pieces of bread to keep it quiet ! Unr 
fortunately for the veracity of the witnesses, the 
naturalist from whom the reptile had escaped was 
able to prove that it was only a harmless English 
grass-snake not more than two feet long, and there- 
fore quite devoid of poisonous " fangs." 

7 



92 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Arising- out of this fear of the reptiles, and a marked 
inaccurate knowledge of their nature and habits, 
serpents were, in days of old, objects of great 
veneration, and the most absurd traditions were 
created in respect of their size and power. Only one 
or two of these need be mentioned to give an idea of 
the terrible nature of the reptiles which ancient 
imagination conjured up. At the Siege of Troy, two 
monstrous serpents came up out of the sea and killed 
Laocoon, the high priest of Apollo, and his two sons. 
According to Diodorus, the Sicilian, an Egyptian 
snake, measuring thirty cubits long, was captured 
and brought to Alexandria. While Regulus was 
with his army near Carthage, a terrible serpent 
stopped their advancement on the banks of the river 
Begrada, and made a meal of a large number of his 
soldiers before the reptile was put to death by a stone 
from a catapult. 

Whenever a writer, be he ancient or modern, sits 
down to describe a snake, or "serpent" as he prefers 
to call the reptile, he seems to delight in letting his 
imagination have free scope in depicting a creature 
terrible in aspect, impossible in architectural con- 
struction, and omnivorous in tastes. Thus Virgil 
(Dryden's rendering) describes a serpent which crept 
from Anchises' tomb : 

" His huge bulk on sev'n high volumes rolVd; 
Blue was his breadth of back, but streak'd with scaly 

gold : 
Thus riding on his curls, he seem'd to pass 



A POET'S SNAKES. 93 

A rolling fire along, and singe the grass. 
More various colours through his body run 
Than Iris when her bow imbibes the sun. 
Betwixt the rising altars, and around, 
The sacred monster shot along the ground ; 
With harmless play amidst the bowls he pass'd. 
And with his lolling tongue assay'd his taste : 
Thus fed with holy food the wondrous guest 
Within the hollow tomb retir'd to rest." 

And undertaking the description of a snake (the 
one referred to above was a serpent) the same poet 
writes : 

" So shines, renew'd in youth, the crested snake. 
Who slept the winter in a thorny brake. 
And, casting off his slough when spring returns. 
Now looks aloft, and with new glory burns, 
Restor'd with pois'nous herbs : his ardent sides 
Reflect the sun : and, rais'd on spires, he rides 
High o'er the grass ; hissing, he rolls along. 
And brandishes by fits his forky tongue." 

Thus we are given to understand that whilst both 
serpent and snake roll and ride, the serpent also has 
the faculty of shooting. And, whereas the serpent 
who lived in Anchises' tomb laps his food out of 
"bowls" with his "lolling tongue" like a tame 
mouser, the snake restores his strength, after a 
winter fast, with "poisonous herbs." Truly the 
reptiles of ancient times must have been wondrous 
creatures. 

But now let us turn to a modern poet, and see 
if we can come any nearer to an accurate descrip-^ 



94 SUPERSTITIONS ABOXTT ANIMALS. 

tion of a serpent. This is what the serpents in 
Longfellow's "Hiawatha" look like: 

"Soon he reached the fiery serpents, 
The Kenabeek, the great serpents, 
Lying huge upon the water, 
Sparkling, rippling in the water, 
With their blazing crests uplifted. 
Breathing fiery fogs and vapours. 
So that none could pass beyond them." 

True, this is a description of those legendary 
reptiles which guarded the habitation of Megisso- 
gwon, the magician; but in the words "fiery 
serpents " we have a distinct reference to the " fiery 
flying serpents" of the Old Testament ("fiery" on 
account of their bite, and "flying" because of their 
swift method of striking) ; and the power of breath- 
ing fiery fogs and vapours (surely a paradox) is 
nothing more than was attributed to the basilisk 
or cockatrice, which is alleged to have killed vegeta- 
tion by breathing upon it. Nor indeed is the 
description more exaggerated than that given by 
many another author who might be quoted, nor 
does it exceed anything which a person of ordinary 
intelligence would write to-day if you were to put 
pen and paper before him and ask him to give you 
a faithful description of a common English adden 

Snakes always have been, and, I am afraid, always 
will be, credited with all kinds of wonderful 
attributes which they do not possess nor ever have 
possessed, and people seem always ready to believe 



SNAKES SUPPOSED TO BE SLIMY. g5 

anything about them which is nasty or inaccurate. 
For instance, people who have never had the 
pleasure of handling the reptiles insist that they are 
"slimy." This is a very great mistake, and is as 
much a slander as if the snakes were to contend 
that such people never washed themselves. I have 
handled numerous snakes, but have not yet found 
one that was "slimy." Sometimes they have been 
cold; but then snakes, being cold-blooded creatures, 
take their temperature from surrounding objects, so 
that they cannot be blamed for having a cold skin 
if they are kept in cold places. The error into 
which writers have fallen in regard to "slippery" 
or "slimy" snakes is perhaps not to be wondered 
at considering the natural prejudice against the 
reptiles, which would preclude a closer acquaintance 
than was absolutely necessary. 

Virgil writes of the '■'■slippery serpent." 

William Seeker says that 

" Snails leave their slime behind them as well as serpents}' 

Chatterton asserts that 

" The sli'my serpent swelters in its course." 

Byron goes to the extreme of explaining the actual 
colour of the "slime": 

" If like a snake she steal within your walls 
Till the black slime betray her as she crawls.'' 

Shakespeare is even more explicit. In the play of 



g6 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Antony and Cleopatra, after the Queen has died 
from the bite of an asp, one of Caesar's guards, 
who has made an examination of the apartment, 
exclaims : 

"This is an aspic's trail, and these fig leaves 
Have slime upon them such as the aspic leaves 
Upon the caves of Nile." 

However thrilling and dramatic this finding of the 
" aspic's trail" may be, as matter of fact it is an utter 
violation of the truth. The snake which Cleopatra 
"applied to her breast," after having "pursued 
conclusions infinite of easy ways to die," was very 
probably the horned cerastes, a deadly reptile which, 
far from seeking the cool seclusion of the "caves of 
Nile," or any other caves, finds supreme enjoyment 
in basking in the hottest places it can discover. 

"So grateful to the heat is this snake," says 
Bruce, the celebrated traveller, ' ' that though the 
sun was burning hot all day, when we made a fire at 
night by digging a hole and burning wood to char- 
coal in it for dressing our victuals, it was seldom 
that we had fewer than half-a-dozen of these vipers, 
which burned themselves to death by approaching 
the embers." 

The slime on the fig-leaves was assuredly not the 
trade mark of this dry-skinned reptile, nor was it the 
" slime " of any other kind of snake which Cleopatra 
could obtain. Shakespeare is very true to nature 
where he has had the opportunity of studying his 



HOW SNAKES KILL. 97 

subject, but he merely expresses the comrrion and 
erroneous ideas of his day when he conies to deal 
with snakes. 

There is also a general, but false, impression that 
snakes " sting." How often we may hear the remark 
when a snake thrusts out its delicate forked tongue : 
"Look! It is putting out its j^2«i^.'" The supposi- 
tion evidently is that this organ is charged with 
poison, and inflicts a wound by penetration. This is 
true of the " sting " of a wasp, as I have many times 
experienced when in my early days I hunted for 
wasps' nests in the hedgerows round Devonshire 
orchards; but it is not true of a snake. A snake 
bites ! It uses its teeth, or fangs, much after the 
manner of a dog — that is, by snapping, and waits for 
the poison to take effect before consuming its prey. 
This, of course, is true only of the venomous species. 
A constrictor grasps its prey with its teeth, throws 
its relentless coils round the unfortunate creature, 
and then swallows it. Other snakes which are 
neither venomous nor constricting lay hold of their 
prey with their needle-like teeth, and, never letting 
go for an instant, work it head-foremost down their 
, gullets. Those few varieties which feed solely upon 
birds' eggs are provided with spinous processes stand- 
ing out from the vertebrae, by which the shell of the ^g^ 
is fractured in its passage, and the contents are thus 
safely received for digestion and assimilation. But 
no snake stings ! So true is this that I would permit 
the most venomous snake to lick my hand till further 



gS SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

orders, presuming of course that it would not be in a 
position to make use of its teeth. 

The impression that a snake uses its tongue to 
inflict a wound is apparently as ancient as the reptile 
itself. In the book of Job we find the tongue 
spoken of as an instrument of death : 

" The viper's tongue shall slay him." 

This, however, in the Bible, is an isolated instance. 
Most of the sacred writers, apparently well acquainted 
with the habits of the reptiles they describe, speak of 
their hite: 

"Behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, 
which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the 
Lord." — -Jeremiah. 

" And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and 
they bit the people; and much people of Israel died." — 
Numbers. 

"At the last it biteth X^t, a serpent, and stingeth like an 
adder." — Proverbs. 

"And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid 
them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and 
fastened on his hand." — The Acts. 

But among the Ancients the tongue was believed 
to be the instrument by which death was caused. 
Ovid mentions it in this respect: 

" Behold ! a snake lurking in the grass, with its barbed 
sting wounds her foot as she flies, and leaves its venom in 
-her body." 

Virgil frequently represents the snake as "brand- 



THE TONGUE AS A " STING. 99 

ishing her tongue," or "brandishing his forky 
tongue," as if that were the weapon by which it 
injected its poison, and he uses the word "sting" 
in association with the same organ : 

" Beware the secret snake that shoots a sting." 

Once he goes so far as to describe two serpents 
which were both venomous and constricting, and in 
addition makes them use their teeth as if for the 
purpose of mastication : 

" And first around the tender boys they wind. 
Then with their sharpen'd fangs their limbs and bodies 

grind. 
The wretched father running to their aid 
With pious haste, but vain, they next invade; 
Twice round his waist their winding volumes roU'd, 
And twice about his gasping throat they fold. 
The pious priest thus doubly chok'd — their crests divide, 
And tow'ring o'er his head in triumph ride. 
With both his hands he labours at the knots; 
His holy fillets the blue venom blots." 

But then these were no ordinary serpents : they 
lived in the sea ! 

Chaucer, in his quaint " Legende of Cleopatras," 
attributes the death of the queen to the stings 
of serpents. His description of the careful way 
Cleopatra arranges her death should be read to be 
appreciated. Having embalmed the body of Antony 
and fastened it in a shrine, she digs a pit alongside. 



100 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

fills it with serpents, and, naked, steps among them, 
and is siung to death : 

" And next the shrine a pit than doth she grave, 
And all the serpentes that she might have. 
She put them in that grave. 

And with that word, naked, with full good herte, 
Among the serpents in the pit she start, 
And there she chose to have her burying. 
Anone the neders [snakes] gonne her for to sting, 
And she her death receiveth with good chere, 
For love of Antony that was her so dere.'' 

Shakespeare, on the other hand, curiously enough 
makes this tragic death almost his solitary instance 
of the bite of a snake : 

" Come thou mortal wretch, 
With thy sharp ieefh this knot intrinsicate 
Of life at once untie : poor venomous fool. 
Be angry, and despatch." 

In most other instances he refers directly or in- 
directly to the tongue as the organ by which poison 
is introduced. Here are some: 

"What, wouldst thou have a serpent sting ihee twice?" 

—"Merchant of Venice." 

" Snakes, in my heart-blood warm'd, that sting my heart ! " 

—" King Richard 11." 

" I fear me you but warm the starved snake 
Who cherish'd in your breasts, will sting your hearts." 

—"King Henry VI." (Part II.). 



FASCINATION. lOI 

" An adder did it; for with doubler tongue 
Than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung." 

— "A Midsummer Nights Dream.'' 

" Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder 
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch 
Throw death upon thy sovereign's enemies." 

— " King Richard II." 

"Were there a serpent seen, with forked tongue, 
That slyly glided towards your majesty, 
It were but necessary you were waked, 
Lest, being suffer'd in that harmful slumber 
The mortal worm might make the sleep eternal." 

—"King Henry VI." (Part II.). 

Spenser uses the word " stings " when speaking of 
the asp's power of inflicting a death-wound : 

" Like the stings of aspes that kill with smart.'' 

And Dryden obviously supposes that a snake has a 
sting in its tongue when he writes that 

" A serpent shoots his sting.'' 

Another faculty which snakes are said to possess 
is that of "fascination." Here I am treading on 
somewhat treacherous ground, for while it is a 
simple matter to prove that snakes are not slimy, 
and cannot sting, it would be no easy task to prove 
that they have not the power to fascinate. 

In the entertaining Scriptural Natural History 
from which I have previously quoted, there is an 
interesting reference to this subject which very 



102 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

clearly illustrates the opinion which was commonly 
held at that period : 

" The black snake is found in America, but it is a harm- 
less creature. ... Its eyes appear like fire for brightness, 
by means of which it is said to be capable of fascinating 
birds who tremble on the wing, and are at length so com- 
pletely frightened as to fall into the serpent's mouth." 

A terrible sort of creature to be creeping about. 
John Wesley, however, writing at an earlier date, 
gives a much better idea of the fascination theory: 

" It is very remarkable," he says, and I cordially agree 
with him, "that he [the rattlesnake] frequently stays under 
a tree, on which a bird or squirrel is hopping about, with his 
mouth wide open. And the event constantly is the creature 
in a while drops into it." 

"A swallow," he goes on to say, "pursuing his prey in the 
air, if he casts his eye on a Snake beneath him, waiting with 
his mouth wide open, alters his course, and flutters over him 
in the utmost consternation, till sinking gradually lower and 
lower he at last drops into his mouth." 

Another story which the eminent divine tells about 
the rattlesnake is even still more extraordinary, and 
shows that this snake has lost none of that primeval 
subtlety which distinguished these reptiles from the 
rest of their fellows : 

"The rattlesnake, being less nimble than others, would 
find difficuhy in getting its prey were it not for the singular 
provision made by the rattle in his tail. When he sees a 
squirrel or bird on a tree he gets to the bottom and shakes 
this instrument. The creature, looking down, sees the 



FASCINATION EXPLAINED. IO3 

terrible eye of the snake bent full upon ,it. It trembles, 
and never attempts to escape, but keeps its eye upon the 
destroyer, till tired with hopping from bough to bough, it 
falls down and is devoured." 

Numerous other writers, amongst whom I will 
mention only Byron and another, tell similar stories 
respecting this singular faculty of "fascination," or 
use it for the purpose of illustration. 

" And like the bird whose pinions quake. 
But cannot fly the gazing snake, 
Will others quail beneath his look. 
Nor 'scape the glance they scarce can brook." 

— " The Giaour!' 

The other reference is to a tale told of an Indian 
missionary. Seated on his verandah one day he 
saw a bird fluttering and trembling near by as if 
in great terror. He then noticed that the little 
creature was being transfixed by the gaze of a 
snake which glided towards it. Rising from his 
seat he stepped between the snake and its quarry, 
and thus breaking the spell liberated the bird, which 
flew happily away. 

What explanation can we give for the common 
belief in this power of fascination ? Such stories 
as those I have mentioned bear unmistakably the 
imprint of exaggeration, but they serve to show 
how entirely and credulously educated people have 
accepted glaring errors respecting the power of 
serpents. And to-day this faculty of fascination 



104 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

is as innoceiitly believed in as it was a century or 
more ago. Such a common belief must have had 
some reasonable origin. The "sliminess" of serpents 
probably originated in their silent, stealthy progres- 
sion, marvellous and mystical, so it seems, in their 
total want of limbs. The "sting," doubtless, may 
be traced to the continuous flickering of the forked 
tongue, which, even when the reptile's mouth is 
shut, continues its movement. And in some similar 
way, most probably, the common idea of fascination 
arose. 

We may at once dismiss the statement that birds 
or squirrels tumble headlong into serpents' yawning 
mouths, unable to resist their seductive eyes. The 
idea is altogether too grotesque; but it is possible 
that, like many other flagrant errors, it had its origin 
in a matter of fact. Probably the inventive person 
who set this fable going saw "a bird or squirrel" 
struggling on the earth a few feet distant from a 
snake as if the poor creature were held spellbound, 
and then saw the snake seize it and swallow it. In 
this case the animal had already been bitten by the 
reptile, which merely was waiting for death to ensue, 
well knowing that its prey had no chance of escape. 

Another theory of fascination, and one which 
seems to be most reasonable, is that the reptiles' prey 
are stricken with abject, numbing terror. 

" The sight of a venomous snake," says Figuier, though 
why necessarily venomous he does not say, "sometimes 
renders its victims immovable, incapable of flight, and, as it 



SNAKE-CHARMING. 105 

were, paralysed, in which helpless condition they are seized 
without opposing the slightest resistance. M. Dumeril, 
while pursuing experiments in the Museum of Natural 
History demonstrative of the sudden and mortal action of 
the bite of a viper on a little bird, saw a goldfinch which he 
held in his hands die suddenly merely at the sight of one." 

I remember some years ago a porter at a London 
station attempting to cross the railway-line just as 
an express came thundering into sight not a hundred 
yards distant. There was time for the man to cross 
to a place of safety, or get back again to the platform 
he had left, but he stood rooted, so it seemed, 
between the lines, staring with horror-stricken eyes 
at the approaching express, and in a moment was cut 
to fragments. Could it be said of this man that he 
was "fascinated"? 

Another "snake story" is that before consuming 
their prey snakes carefully lick them all over, so that, 
being well lubricated, they will slip down the snakes' 
gullets more easily. Needless to say this habit is 
quite imaginary. There is scarcely enough moisture 
on a snake's tongue to cover a beetle. The idea has 
arisen from the snakes' habit of investigating their 
food with their tongues before they swallow it. 

While on the subject of snakes I cannot do other- 
wise than say a few words about "snake-charming," 
though I must acknowledge, at the outset, that the 
subject is one on which I find it difficult to express 
any definite opinion. I have met with more than one 
gentleman who has declared that he has seen cobras 



I06 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

"charmed" by Indian natives, and has been quite 
satisfied with the genuineness of the performance. 
Others have declared that the reptiles employed 
by the charmers were invariably deprived of their 
fangs, had their lips stitched together, or in some 
other way prevented from striking. In the written 
statements of eye-witnesses the same difference of 
opinion may be noted. A Government official in 
Egypt, who was also a naturalist, discovered some 
years ago that a so-called horned cerastes, with which 
the chief snake-charmer was supposed to be doing 
some marvellous feats, was nothing more dangerous 
than a common non-poisonous variety upon which 
artificial horns had been fixed. And it is pretty 
certain that the pythons with which most travelling 
charmers entertain the public are kept at such 
a low temperature as to be wanting of sufficient 
vitality to constrict. On the other hand. Dr. 
Thomson, the author of the celebrated work on 
the Holy Land, declares that he has seen many 
serpent-charmers who do really exercise some 
extraordinary power over snakes. The snake- 
charmer, he says, is often required to perform his 
feats in the full light of day, surrounded by 
spectators, yet his success is always complete. Dr. 
Tristram bears out this statement also from personal 
experience. 

" The charmers," he remarks, " are not impostors ; for 
though they may sometimes remove their fangs, it is a. well- 



THE DEAF ADDER. IO7 

attested fact that they generally allow them to remain, and 
they will operate on the animals when just caught as 
willingly as on individuals which have long been in their 
possession ; but they are very reluctant to make experiments 
on any other species than the cobra.'' 

The practice of snake-charming is of very great 
antiquity, and is mentioned by the Psalmist : 

"They are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear; 
Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charm- 
ing never so wisely." 

By-the-bye, what sort of an animal is this cele- 
brated Deaf Adder? In all my investigations into 
Natural History I have not yet met with a specimen, 
and if there is one reptile more than another I have 
a great desire to meet it is this wonderful adder 
which cannot be charmed. Shakespeare, it would 
seem, believed in the existence of the reptile, or, at 
any rate, he thought it a capital specimen for pur- 
poses of illustration : 

" For pleasure and revenge 
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice 
Of any true decision." — " Troilus and Cressida." 

" What ! Art thou like the adder waxen deaf.?" 

—''King Henry VJ." 

Many country people of the present day are foolish 

enough to believe that the harmless, timid blind 

worm, or slowworm, is the cunning creature of 

which the Psalmist wrote ; and my good friend the 

8 



I08 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

naturalist who flourished early in last century can 
actually describe the creature for us. Hear him ! — 

" It will lay one ear close to the ground and cover the 
other ear with its tail to prevent itself from hearing the sound 
of the music.'' 

The intelligent animal ! No wonder it cannot be 
tamed. 

Now, what is the simple truth of the matter ? We 
have it in a nutshell. Unimaginative people persist 
in reading Holy Scripture as if every word were a 
plain matter of fact. They strip it of every vestige 
of its beautiful warmth of colouring and expressive 
allegory, and puzzle themselves with self-created 
difficulties which have existence only in their own 
dull comprehension. The Psalmist never meant it 
to be understood that such a creature as a "deaf 
adder" had a real existence. Such a rendering of 
the text utterly spoils his simile. He was describing 
the nature of wicked people, and wished to con- 
vey the significant truth that just as some snakes 
cannot be charmed, so the wicked will not obey the 
injunctions of God. That is simple enough. The 
same meaning is contained in one of our own well- 
known proverbs: "There are none so deaf as those 
who will not hear." 

In another verse the Psalmist writes: "Their 
poison is like the poison of a serpent." Are we 
then also to believe that wicked people go about 
with bags of poison in their cheeks ? If we accept 



THE SLOWWORM. lOQ 

one figure literally we must deal with the other 
in the same way. As we have seen from the 
sacred writers' frequent references to the "bite" of 
serpents, while so many modern writers mention the 
words "sting" and "tongue," the natural history 
of the Bible is very true. We cannot improve upon 
it; though, as we shall notice in the last division of 
my subject, translators have tried to, by introducing 
animals which have had no real existence. 

Another reptile which crawls abroad under a mis- 
nomer is the Blindworm, or Slowworm — a poor, frail, 
nervous creature, which ignorance tells us is deadly 
venomous. Shakespeare calls it " the eyeless 
venom'd worm," and mentions one of the ingredients 
of the witches' cauldron as being "a blindworm's 
sting." Herrick also believes it to be dangerous: 

" No will-o'-th'-wispe mis-light thee ; 
Nor snake or slow-worme bite thee." 

Scott gives it the character of being slimy and 
slow : 

" There the slow blindworm left his slime 
On the fleet limbs that mocked at time." 

Here, in these few quotations, we have the common 
erroneous ideas respecting this frail little reptile. It 
is popularly supposed to be venomous, eyeless, slow, 
and slimy, and what is even worse, by country people 
it is believed to be one of those very creatures which 
stopped their ears and would not listen to the voice 



no SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

of the charmers. But how utterly unwarranted are 
these impressions. Not only has a blindworm eyes, 
but it also uses them with such effect that the 
little creature vanishes like a flash before you can 
even get a glimpse of it; a rustle of moss, and it 
has gone. Thus it is neither a ilind worm nor a 
slow worm. Nor is it venomous ; far otherwise. 
Its tiny teeth are scarcely able to make an impression 
on one's bare skin, and so nervous is it that when 
handled it becomes rigid with terror, and can easily 
be snapped in pieces — hence its name Anguis fragilis. 
As for being "slimy," all nasty creatures are 
popularly supposed to be " slimy" ! This, then, is 
the "eyeless venom'd worm," the little creature to 
whom the fairies sang: 

" Newts and blindworms do no wrong. 
Come not near our fairy queen " — 

a timid, useful reptile which any one might handle 
without the least repugnance. The reason why it 
has been misunderstood and misnamed is because its 
real position in the animal kingdom has not been 
appreciated. The blindworm is not a worm, or 
snake, at all. It is, strictly speaking, a lizard; but 
its limijs having become obsolete, its outward 
appearanpe in many respects resembles that of a true 
snake. There is one feature, however, which dis- 
tinguishes it at once. Like other members of the 
lizard family, the blindworm has eyelids. In this 
respect it differs from the true snakes, which,- 



SOME SNAKE STORIES. Ill 

Strangely enough, "go about the world with their 
eyes open," for the very simple reason that they 
cannot shut them. In consequence of this peculiarity, 
when blind worms have been found hibernating in the 
company of snakes, their closed eyes have formed a 
striking contrast against the wide-open eyes of the 
other reptiles, and given them the reputation of being 
blind. 

There are numerous other strange superstitions 
about snakes in general which show how little their 
real nature is understood. One of these yarns is 
that, however much they may be injured, they cannot 
die until the sun goes down. That this is untrue I 
have proved by killing them in the forenoon and 
carrying them home in my pockets. The most 
probable explanation of this stupid belief is that 
snakes possess so much vitality that unless the back- 
bone is actually broken they will sometimes remain 
slowly dying until darkness has set in. In the 
morning they will, of course, be found to have died, 
giving the impression that, as the superstition has it, 
" they were waiting for the sun to set." 

Equally strange and untrue, it is scarcely necessary 
to say, is the assertion that if a snake be cut in 
pieces, no matter how far the bits are separated, they 
will rejoin, and the snake will live on happily as if 
nothing had happened. Nor is it less stupid to 
believe, as many country people do, that if you go to 
sleep in the open a snake will creep down your 
throat. What with crows, and earwigs, and snakes, 



112 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

tramps must find sleeping in hedgerows very in- 
convenient. Shakespeare refers to this superstition 
in As You Like It: 

" Under an oak, whose boughs were moss'd with age, 
And high top bald with dry antiquity, 
A wretched ragged man, o'ergrown with hair, 
Lay sleeping on his back : about his neck 
A green and gilded snake had wreathed itself, 
Who with her head nimble in threats approach'd 
The opening of his mouth." 

Of the extreme virulency of snake poison many 
wonderful stories are told, and if we accept one in 
every hundred as being fairly accurate we shall not 
be unduly misled. Here is a sample. An American 
farmer, while working in his fields in the heat of a 
summer noonday, was attacked by a huge rattlesnake, 
which endeavoured to fix its fangs in the farmer's leg. 
To repulse the attack, the farmer began to lay about 
him with the rake, and the snake, seeing that a bite 
of the leg was out of the question, seized the rake 
with its fangs and severely bit it. "When, lo ! in a 
moment," explained the American farmer, "the wood 
of the rake swelled to an enormous size !" This is 
an American story, and is given in evidence of 
what a rattlesnake can do when it seriously sets to 
work. 

But it is left to an Englishman to give the most 
effective illustration of the terrible nature of a rattle- 
snake's venom. If we are at all dubious about the 
truth of the American snake story, what shall we say 



VIPER S MATERNAL INSTINCT. 113 

of the following' yarn given with all seriousness in 
A Survey of the Wonders of God in Creation: — 

" Of how extremely penetrating a nature is their poison ? 
A man provoking one of them to bite the edge of his broad 
axe, the colour of the steel part presently changed: and at 
the first stroke he made with it in his work, the discoloured 
part broke out leaving a gap in the axe." 

How thankful Engflish farmers should be that there 
are no rattlesnakes in England ! 

The much debated question as to whether a viper 
gives refuge to her progeny down her own throat 
when danger threatens them is, I believe, still await- 
ing definite settlement. Much has been said on 
behalf of the supposition by people who affirm they 
have seen a viper in the act of concealing her young 
in this extraordinary manner. But the only means 
of solving the problem — capturing a viper with the 
young inside her — has not yet, so far as I have been 
able to ascertain, been carried out. Under these cir- 
cumstances, it would be manifestly unfair to write of 
this alleged curiosity of nature as a mere superstition. 

By this time, I think, my readers will have become 
tired of reading about snakes, a subject which, I 
know, has a fascination for only a very few people. 
Let us therefore turn to other superstitions which 
will make pleasanter reading for the majority. 

A very extraordinary supposition, and one which it 
is difficult to treat seriously, is that the Swallow, 

" the ?wift- winged and pleasing harbinger of spring," 



114 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

passes away the cold months of winter at the bottom 

of a pond or river. Yet this was at one time no 
isolated opinion. , Pepys was not the only one who 
believed that 

" Swallows are pften brought up in nets out of the mudd 
from under water, hanging together to some twigg or other 
dead in ropesj and brought to the fire will come to life." 

Dr. Johnson held the same opinion as the dear old 
gossiper, though he does not go quite so far as to 
say that the birds were dead. 

"Swallows," he says, "certainly sleep all winter. A 
number of them conglobulate together by flying round and 
round and then, all in a heap, throw themselves under water 
and lie in the bed of a river." 

It is not easy to understand how so strange and un- 
natural a belief became common. The most probable 
reason is that swallows, when chasing their natural 
food, — gnats, flies, and kindred insects, — approach 
so near to the surface of rivers and ponds as to 
" skim" the water now and again. Their disappear- 
ance at the period of migration, added to the 
foregoing habit, would be sufficient to give rise to 
the belief that, in order to escape the wintry blasts 
and frosts, they dived beneath the water and lay dor- 
mant in the mud. 

The supposition that swallows spend the winter 
months in England in a state of torpor, instead of 
seeking warmer climes, was at one time generally 
accepted as a matter of fact. 



TORPIDITY OF SWALLOWS. II5 

Gilbert White, while declaring that he had never 
heard an account of alleged torpidity "worth attend- 
ing to," supports the theory that many swallows 
remain during the winter months in "holes and 
caverns." 

" I am more and more induced to believe," he writes, 
"that many of the swallow kind do not depart from this 
island, but lay themselves up in holes and caverns; and do, 
insect-like and bat-like, come forth at mild times, and then 
retire again to their latebrae." 

He, however, gives some very interesting examples 
of the popular superstition of his day. 

" A clergyman of an inquisitive turn," he writes, " assures 
me that when he was a great boy some workmen, in pulling 
down the battlements of a church tower early in the spring, 
found two or three swifts {Hirundines apodes) among the 
rubbish, which were at first appearance dead, but on being 
carried to the fire revived. He told me that out of his great 
care to preserve them he put them in a paper bag, and hung 
them by the kitchen fire, where they were suffocated. 

" Another intelligent person has informed me that while 
he was a schoolboy at Brighthelttistone in Sussex [the early 
name of Brighton] a great fragment of the chalk cliff fell 
down one stormy winter on the beach, and that many people 
found swallows among the rubbish." 

Mr. White then goes on to say: 

" But on my questioning him whether he saw any of those 
birds himself, to my no small disappointment, he answered 
me in the negative; but that others assured him they did." 

How like many other strange stories that get 



Il6 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

abroad ! — he had not seen the swallows, but he knew 
others who had. 

Several of our poets have preserved for us in verse 
the hibernation of our feathered visitors. 

Thomas Carew, as early as the dawn of the seven- 
teenth century, writing on the " Approach of Spring," 
calls the swallow "dead ": 

" But the warm sun thaws the benumb'd earth, 
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth 
To the dead swallow." 

Yet the same poet seems well aware that swallows 
are annual visitants : 

" Like swallows, when your summer's done. 
They'll fly and seek some warmer sun." 

Cowper writes very much after the same manner: 

"The swallows in their torpid state 
Compose their useless wing.'' 

But also says : 

" She comes in the spring, all the summer stays. 
And, dreading the cold, still follows the sun." 

Thomson, halting between two opinions, gives the 
birds the alternative of seeking " warmer climes " or 
retiring to "their wintry slumbers," where they 

" In clusters clung, beneath the mould'ring bank, 
And where, unpierc'd by frost, the cavern sweats." 

Dryden seems in a similar predicament. He tells 
us how the swallow, knowing "by instinct or pro- 



A COMMON OPINION. II7 

phecy " that winter was approaching, summoned her 
family to the summit of a steeple, where they held a 
"common council," and decided on flight. Next 
day, therefore, says the poet, 

" All to the general rendezvous repair. 
They try their fluttering wings, and thrust themselves in 

air: 
But whether upward to the moon they go. 
Or dream the winter out in caves below. 
Or hawk at flies elsewhere, concerns us not to know." 

Yet he adds : 

" Southwards, you may be sure, they bent their flight." 

In another part of the same poem Dryden tells us 
how a martin and his " race," battered by " rattling 
hailstones, mixed with snow and rain," looked about 
for a place to spend the winter months in, and 

" Took shelter in a hollow tree;'' 

from which, however, they were soon hustled by a 
" sturdy clown " and " all the rabble of the town," 

" because the laws provide 
No martin there in winter shall abide." 

Of course the whole poem is a satire, but these 
extracts show that at the time it was written, the 
time also when Pepys accepted the yarn about 
swallows sleeping under water, the common opinion 
of the people was that the swallow tribe passed away 
the winter months in a state of torpor. 



Il8 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

In this country we have no legends about the 
swallow, but in Sweden it is a bird of some import- 
ance, on account of its supposed association with the 
death of our Lord. There is a legend about it in 
that country very similar to those of our own pet 
bird, Robin Redbreast, both of which I shall give in 
the proper place. In his poem, "The Swallow," 
Leland tells us how: 

" When Jesus hung upon the Cross, 
The birdsj.'tis said, bewailed the loss 
Of Him who first to mortals taught, 
Guiding with love the life of all. 
And heeding e'en the sparrows' fall. 
But, as old Swedish legends say, 
Of all the birds upon that day. 
The swallow felt the deepest grief. 
And longed to give her Lord relief, 
And chirped when any near would come, 
' Hugswala swala swala honomP 
Meaning, as they who tell it deem, 
Oh cool, oh cool and comfort Him." 

In one of Moore's "Odes of Anacreon"we find 
the two lines: 

" And Progna, hapless, frantic maid. 
Is now a swallow in the shade." 

And turning to Dryden's translation of Virgil's 
"Pastorals," we meet with the swallow under the 
same name: I 

" While Progne makes on chimney-tops her moan. 
And hovers o'er the palace once her own." 



THE STORY OF PHILOMELA. II9 

Both these quotations have reference to the same 
ancient fable, a fable which probably has been more 
alluded to by our poets than any other. 

Progne and Philomela were two sisters, daughters 
of Pandion, King of Athens. Progne was married to 
Tereus, King of Thrace, for services he had rendered 
to Pandion. Philomela, who was unmarried, lived 
with her father. Yearning for the society of her 
sister, Progne entreats her husband to go to Pandion 
and ask him to permit Philomela to visit her, even if 
only for a little while, and Tereus sets sail on his 
mission. While he is urging his wife's request with 
King Pandion, Philomela enters richly arrayedy but 
her personal beauty is even far richer than her 
apparel. Tereus is overwhelmed by her charms, and 
adds his own entreaties to those of his wife's. 
Philomela also pleads to be allowed to go to her 
sister, and King Pandion, overcome by their impor- 
tunity, consents. Tereus and Philomela then set sail 
for Thrace, but soon the evil intentions of Tereus 
become known to the unfortunate woman. His 
wicked passion gains the mastery over his honour, 
and thrusting his sister-in-law into a castle in a 
lonely wood he takes advantage of her helplessness. 
Then, fearful of her betraying his villainy, he tears 
out her tongue, and returning to Progne tells her 
with feigned grief that Philomela is dead. But 
guarded from flight and deprived of the power of 
speech, Philomela is not without means of making 
her terrible condition known to her sister. She 



120 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

works the whole story of Tereus's unfaithfulness and 
her own melancholy state into a design in cloth and 
sends it by an attendant to Progne. Progne reads 
this fearful message as if it were written in words, 
rushes frenzied to Philomela's prison, and concealing 
her sister's face under the foliage of Bacchus as if 
celebrating his festival, brings her to Tereus's own 
house. There Progne, pitying the poor woman's 
overwhelming sorrow, embraces her, but loathing 
her husband for the crime he has committed, thinks 
out a scheme of revenge. Shall she burn his palace 
down and cast him in the flames, or cut out his 
tongue, as he has cut out her sister's, or shall she 
stab him to death? While she is thus enraged and 
thirsting for revenge, Itys, her son, comes into the 
room. She sees in his face a likeness to his father, 
and this decides her upon what course she will 
pursue. While the Uttle fellow's arms are put 
endearingly about her neck, she drags him to another 
part of the palace, and, uplifting her sword, strikes 
him dead. Nor is this enough for revenge : Philomela 
takes up the sword and cuts his throat, and together 
the two women mangle his body and put him into a 
cauldron of boiling water. Then, gloating over her 
scheme, Progne makes the body into a dish and 
places it before her husband. Tereus, blind to the 
nature of the horrible meal, partakes of it, and calls 
for his little son Itys, that he may also join in the 
feasting. Then Progne's triumph is complete. She 
tells her horror-stricken husband that the boy for 



WHY THE NIGHTINGALE IS SAD. 121 

whom he is asking is the very food that he is eating. 
And yet, scarcely understanding, he calls again for 
Itys; but Philomela, her hair disordered and the 
marks of the murder upon her, springing forth, 
throws the head of the boy upon him, and with a loud 
cry Tereus springs from the table and rushes on 
the women. With his drawn sword he pursues them 
into the grounds of the castle, but the gods come to 
their assistance. While she is making for the woods 
Philomela is transformed into a nightingale; and 
Progne, taking refuge beneath the roofs of the build- 
ings, becomes a swallow, upon whose breast even 
to-day the red stains of her murdered son appear. 
Tereus is changed into a crested bird which some 
versions of the legend say is a hoopoe, others a 
lapwing : 

" The Thracian king, lamenting sore, 
Turned to a lapwing, doeth them uprayde." 

It is from this gruesome fable that the Nightin- 
gale is so often called by our poets Philomela or 
Philomel, and probably the melancholy fate of the 
king's daughter, whose name the bird bears, is as 
much responsible for its atmosphere of loneliness 
and gloom as are its plaintive notes and midnight 
melody. To mention all the instances in which the 
nightingale is called by the name of Philomela or 
Philomel would mean the extension of these pages 
to an inordinate length. Quite a few must suffice, 
and these will, at the same time, help to show how 



122 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

the above fable has been influential in associating the 
bird with grief: — 

" Hence with the nightingale will I take part, 
The blessed byrd, that spends her time of sleepe 
In songs and plaintive please the more t'augment 
The memory of hys misdeede that bred her woe." 

— Spenser. 

" Come, Philomel, that sing'st of ravishment. 
Make thy sad grave in my dishevelled hair: 
As the dank earth weeps at thy languishment, 
So I at each sad strain will strain a tear. 
And with deep groans the diapason bear; 
For burden-wise I'll hum on Tarquin still. 
While thou on Tereus descant'st better still." 

— Shakespeare {"Lucrece"). 

" Sad Philomel, in bowery shades unseen. 
To vernal airs attunes her varied shades." 

—Pop {"Odyssey"). 

"Ah ! why, all abandoned to darkness and woe. 
Why, lone Philomela, that languishing fall?" 

— Beattie, 

"And Philomell her song with tears doth steepe."— 5^«««>-. 

"King Pandion, he is dead; 
All thy friends are lapp'd in lead; 
All thy fellow-birds do sing. 
Careless of thy sorrowing." 

— Richard Barnfield, 

"And now and then sweet Philomel would wail."— 7%o»mo«. 

"And lonely Philomel still waking s\ags."—MaMew Green, 

" 'Less Philomel will deign a song 
In her sweetest saddest plight." — Milton. 



IN LOVE WITH THE ROSE. 123 

" The gentle bird who sings of pity best." — Charlotte Smith. 

" When I departed am, ring thou my knell, 
Thou pitiful and pretty Philomel." — Herrick. 

How charming is the Eastern fable that the 
nightingale is "in love " with the rose ! Picture the 
sweet little singer in the darkness pouring out its 
melody to its blushing lady-love from the depths 
of its tender love-sick heart ! This is a favourite 
theme of the poet Moore : 

" The young rose which I gave thee, so dewy and bright. 
Was the flow'ret most dear to the sweet bird of night. 
Who oft by the moonlight o'er her blushes hath hung, 
And thrill'd every leaf with the wild lay he sung. 
Oh take thou this young rose, and let her life be 
Prolong'd by the breath she will borrow from thee: 
For while o'er her bosom thy sweet notes shall trill, 
She'll think the sweet night-bird is courting her still." 

— " The Young Rose." 

" Though rich the spot 
With every flow'r this earth has got. 

What is it to the nightingale, 
If there his darling rose is not ? " 

— " The Light of the Harem." 

" And yet, in all that flowery maze 

Through which my life has lov'd to tread, 
When I have heard the sweetest lays 
From lips of dearest lustre shed; 

When I have felt the warbled word 

From beauty's mouth of perfume sighing. 

Sweet as music's hallow'd bird 
Upon a rose's bosom lying." 

— " Poem to Miss Bickford." 

9 



124 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

"There's a bower of roses by Bendemeer's stream, 
And the nightingale sings round it all the day long; 
In the time of my childhood 'twas like a sweet dream, 
To sit in the roses and hear the bird's song. 

That bower and its music I never forget. 
But oft when alone in the bloom of the year, 

I think — is the nightingale singing there yet ? 
Are the roses still bright by the calm Bendemeer ? " 

—'■' Lalla RooW 

Byron, too, sings of the fable : 

" For there — the Rose o'er crag or vale, 
Sultana of the Nightingale, 
The maid for whom his melody, 
His thousand songs are heard on high. 
Blooms blushing to her lover's tale; 
His queen, the garden queen his rose 
Unbent by winds, unchill'd by snows. 
Far from the winters of the west. 
By every breeze and season blest, 
Returns the sweets by nature given 
In softest incense back to heaven." 

— " The Giaour^' 

" The childish thought was scarcely breathed 
Before the rose was pluck'd and wreathed; 
The next fond moment saw her seat 
Her fairy form at Selim's feet: 
' This rose to calm thy brother's cares 
A message from the Bulbul [nightingale] bears; 
It says to-night it will prolong 
For Selim's ear his sweetest song.'" 

— " The Bride o/Abydos." 

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in her translation 
of a Turkish love poem, writes: 



THE LOVELORN NIGHTINGALE. 125 

" The nightingale now wanders in the vines: 
Her passion is to seek roses." 

Mrs. Browning, in "A Lay of the Early Rose," 
represents the rose as saying : 

" Ten nightingales shall flee 
Their woods for love of me, — 
Singing sadly all the suntide, 
Never waiting for the moontide." 

Probably it is this poetic fable which has given to 
the nightingale the character of being "lovelorn," 
or it may be derived solely from the plaintiveness 
of its melody. Whichever it may be, the bird is 
"in love." 

" Where the lovelorn nightingale 
Nightly to thee her sad song mourneth well." 

—Milton. 

" To dear Saint Valentine, no thrush 
Sings livelier from a spring-tide bush : 
No nightingale her lovelorn tune 
More sweetly warbles to the moon." — Scott. 

Shelley, with a touch of realism in his poetry, 
correctly refers to the enamoured songster as the 
male bird, and describes him pouring out his song 
to his listening mate. This poet, Byron, and 
Moore, are among the very few who write of the 
bird as "he"; nearly all others, probably thinking 
of poor Philomela, make the songster the female 



126 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

bird. Love, however, is still the nightingale's 
theme. 

'"Tis that enamoured nightingale 
Who gives me the reply; 
He ever tells the same soft tale 
Of passion and of constancy 
To his mate, who rapt and fond 
Listening sits, a bough heyoa±"—Shelky. 

" Hark ! that's the nightingale, 
Telling the self-same tale 

Her song told when this ancient earth was young: 
So echoes answered when her song was sung 
In the first wooded vale." — Christina G. Rossetti. 

To make "her" song more pitiful, the bird is 
represented as perching with its breast pressed 
against a thorn: 

" Never nightingale so singeth — 
Oh, she leans on thorny tree. 
And her poet soul she flingeth 
Over pain to victory." — E. B. Browning. 

" Everything did banish moan. 
Save the nightingale alone: 
She, poor bird, as all forlorn, 
Lean'd her breast up-till a thorn, 
And there sung the dolefuUest ditty. 
That to hear it was great pity." — Barnfield. 

" These nightingales warble the most sweetly. 
When they set their breasts against the thorns." 

— William Seeker. 

" There, as sad Philomel, alike forlorn, 
Sings to the night from her accustomed thorn." 

— Dr. Darwin. 



THE nightingale's CONTEST. 127 

" No one to soothe me as I sleep 
Save Philomel on yonder thorn." 

— W.J.Mickle. 

" And whiles against a thorn thou bear'st thy part, 
To keep thy sharp woes waking, wretched I, 
To imitate thee well, against my heart 
Will fix a sharp knife to affright mine eye." 

— Shakespeare. 

Still in the melancholy vein ! There is a charming 
but pathetic fable which is worthy of being inserted 
here, telling how a nightingale and a shepherd con- 
tested for supremacy in the richness and variety of 
song, and how, as the shepherd struck luxurious 
chords of music from his strings, the sweet bird 
replied with richer song, until the young musician, 
breaking forth into "a full-mouth'd diapason," the 
nightingale essayed "all her sweet powers" to 
imitate the deep sound, and failing, fell exhausted 
upon the shepherd's lute and died. 

A fine description of this musical contest was 
written by Richard Crawshaw in the middle of the 
seventeenth century from the Latin of Strada, and 
the fable is mentioned at some length about the same 
period by John Ford, the dramatist, in the Loveri 
Melancholy, and by several other writers of a later 
date, Moore and Cowper among the rest. It is not 
possible or necessary to quote here more than a frag- 
ment of Crawshaw's grand poem of a hundred and 
seventy-five lines, only a few dealing with the 
pathetic finish of the contest must suffice : 



128 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

" At length (after so long, so loud a strife 
Of all the strings, still -breathing the best life 
Of blest variety, attending on 
His fingers' fairest revolution, 
In many a sweet rise, many as sweet a fall) 
A fuU-mouth'd diapason swallows all. 
This done, he lists what she would say to this i 
And she, although her breath's late exercise 
Had dealt too roughly with her tender throat, 
Yet summons all her sweet powers for a note. 
Alas 1 in vain 1 for while (sweet soul) she tries 
To measure all those wild diversities 
Of chatt'ring strings, by the small size of one 
Poor simple voice, raised in a natural tone; 
She fails, and failing grieves, and grieving dies : 
She dies, and leaves her life the victor's prize. 
Falling upon his lute : oh fit to have 
(That lived so sweetly) dead, so sweet a grave.'' 

John Ford's description, given in dialogue, is 
neither so full nor so rich as Crawshaw's, but he has 
embodied the pathos of the scene, and has given us 
the phrase : 

" A nightingale. Nature's best skill'd musician," 

which choicely expresses an almost universal opinion. 
The following is an extract from the Lovers' 
Melancholy. Menaphon is describing to Amethus 
the contest he has seen in a grove at Thessaly : 

" The young man grew at last 
Into a pretty anger, that a bird 
Whom art had never taught clefs, moods, or notes, 
Should vie with him for mastery, whose study 
Had busied many hours to perfect practice : 



THE BIRD IS HEART-BROKEN. I29 

To end the controversy, in a rapture 
Upon his instrument he plays so swiftly, 
So many voluntaries, and so quick. 
That there was curiosity and cunning, 
Concord in discord, lines of differing method 
Meeting in one full centre of delight. 



The bird, ordain'd to be 
Music's first martyr, strove to imitate 
These several sounds: which, when her warbling throat 
Fail'd in, for grief, down dropp'd she on his lute, 
And brake her heart ! " 

Moore's reference to the fable is contained in a 
few lines describing Zelica's sad melody when she 
sings to the obligate of her lute : 

"And when she sung to her lute's touching strain 
'Twas like the notes, half ecstasy, half pain, 
The bulbul utters, ere her soul depart, 
When, vanquish'd by some minstrel's powerful art. 
She dies upon the lute whose sweetness broke her heart." 

Cowper deals with the fable in a poem of four 
verses, which he calls " Strada's Nightingale": 

"The shepherd touch'd his reed; sweet Philomel 
Essay'd, and oft essay'd to catch the strain, 
And treasuring, as on her ear they fell, 
The numbers, echo'd note for note again. 

The peevish youth, who ne'er had found before 

A rival of his skill, indignant heard. 
And soon (for various was his tuneful store) 

In loftier tones defied the simple bird. 



130 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

She dared the task, and rising as he rose 

With all the force that passion gives inspired, 

Return'd the sound awhile, but in the close 
Exhausted fell, and at his feet expired. 

Thus strength, not skill prevail'd. O fatal strife. 
By thee, poor songstress, playfully begun ; 

And, O sad victory, which cost thy life. 
And he may wish that he had never won." 

Is it anything more than a mere coincidence that 
one of the notes of the nightingale is " tereu," while 
the name of the king who dealt so wickedly with poor 
Philomela in the fable was Tereus ? Is it not quite 
probable that the name of the king was suggested by 
the note of the bird ? Richard Barnfield seems to 
suggest this in one of his sonnets, from which I have 
previously quoted : 

" 'Fie, fie, fie,' now would she cry; 
' Tereu, tereu/' by-and-by ; 
That to hear her so complain. 
Scarce I could from tears refrain.'' 

And later in the same sonnet he mentions the name 
of King Pandion, the father of Philomela, who being 
dead cannot pity her. 

John Lyly, the dramatist, also mentions this note 
in the bird's song as if it had something to do with 
" her woes'': 

" What bird so sings, yet so does wail .' 
O, 'tis the ravish'd nightingale. 
Jug, jug, jug, ]M%— tereu— she cries, 
And still her woes at midnight rises." 



THE PELICAN. I3I 

As we have noticed when giving the first two 
quotations of the nightingale, the bird is supposed to 
be singing of Tereus, who, as Spenser puts it, " bred 
her woe"; and Lord Thurlow is another poet who 
uses the name in the same connection : 

" When with the jacinth 

Coy fountains are tressed ; 
And for the mournful bird 

Greenwoods are dressed. 
That did for Tereus pine ; 
Then shall our songs be thine, 
To whom our hearts incline : 

May, be thou blessed !" 

A very poetic, but quite erroneous, supposition is 
that a Pelican feeds her young with blood which she 
draws from her own breast. 

Keats tells us that 

" Life's self is nourished by its proper pith. 
And we are nurtured like a pelican brood." 

Byron goes so far as to give a picture of 
the pelican destroying her own life to feed her 
nestlings : 

" It is as if the desert bird 
Whose beak unlocks her bosom's stream 
To still her famished nestlings' scream, 
Nor mourns a life to them transferr'd, 
Should rend her rash devoted breast, 
And find them flown her empty nest." 

Moore even more definitely declares: 



132 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

" No, thy chains as they rankle, thy blood as it runs. 
But make thee more painfully dear to thy sons, 
Whose hearts, like the young of the desert-bird's nest, 
Drink love in each life-drop that flows from thy breast." 

So perfect a picture of maternal love and solicitude 
is this poetic fable, that one is truly sorry to deny 
that it has any foundation in truth. The horribly 
plain and unromantic foundation of the belief is that 
the pelican, when feeding her voracious young, 
presses her bill against her breast to disgorge the 
fish contained in her capacious pouch. The fact of 
the tip of the bird's bill being red has been quite 
enough to create the touching story that the pelican 
gives of her own life's blood to nourish her tender 
offspring. 

The story that Swans sing a sweet song " tinged 
with pathos" before they die is of very ancient 
origin. Ovid was familiar with the fable, and makes 
use of it to describe poor Canens' lamentation for 
her woodpecker husband : 

"Six nights and as many returning lights of the sun 
beheld her, destitute of sleep and of food, going over hills 
and valleys, wherever chance led her. Tiber, last of all, 
beheld her worn out with weeping, and wandering, and 
reposing her body on his cold banks. There, with tears, she 
poured forth words attuned, lamenting, in a low voice, her 
very woes, as when the swan, now about to die, sings his own 
funeral dirge. At last, melting with grief, even to her thin 
marrow, she pined away, and by degrees vanished into light 



SWAN S DEATH-SONG. 133 

And in the same translation (Riley's) the poet also 
writes: 

" The white swan, as he lies on the wet grass when the 
Fates summon him, sings at the fords of Maender.'' 

The theme has been a favourite one with the poets: 

" I will play the song and die in music.'' 

—Shakespeare (" Othello"). 

" And now this pale swan in her watery nest 
Begins the sad dirge of her certain ending." 

. — Shakespeare {" Lucrece"). 

" Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end. 
Fading in music." 

— Shakespeare {"Merchant of Venice^). 

" And over the pond are sailing 
Two swans all white as snow; 
Sweet voices mysteriously wailing 
Pierce through me as onward they go. 

They sail along, and a ringing 

Sweet melody rises on high, 
And when the swans begin singing 

They presently must die." — Heine. 

" There swan-like let me sing and die." — Byron. 

" A dying swan of Pindus sings 
In mildly mournful strains." 

— Robert Montgomery. 

" Like some full-breasted swan 
That, fluting a wild carol ere her death, 
Ruffles her pure cold plume and takes the flood 
With swarthy webs." 

— Tennyson (" The Passing of Arthur^'). 



134 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

"With an inner voice the river ran, 
Adown it floated a dyipg swan, 
And loudly did lament." 

—Tennyson (" The Dying Swan"). 

" Swans sing before they die: 'twere no bad thing 
Should certain persons die before they sing." 

— Coleridge. 

Many other poets have also made similar references 
to the same fable, and from Whittier's " Swan Song 
of Parson Avery," in which the poet says that 

" The soul of Father Avery went singing to his rest," 

we may gather that this old idea is one of several 
that have found their way across the Atlantic, others 
being the British legend of the Robin and the 
custom of " Telling the Bees." 

There is no more beautiful or poetic story than how 
the Crossbill derived its name. The legend can best 
be told in Longfellow's sympathetic poem: 

" On the cross the dying Saviour 

Heavenward lifts His eyelids calm, 

Feels, but scarcely feels, a trembling 

In His pierced and bleeding palm. 

And by all the world forsaken, 

Sees He how with zealous care 
At the ruthless nails of iron 

A little bird is striving there. 

Stained with blood and never tiring 

With its beak it doth not cease. 
From the cross 'twould free the Saviour, 

Its Creator's Son release. 



PEACOCKS HATE GOLD. I35 

And the Saviour speaks in mildness: 

' Blest be thou of all the good ! 
Bear, as token of this moment, 

Marks of blood and holy rood !' 

And that bird is called the crossbill; 

Covered all with blood so clear. 
In the groves of pine it singeth 

Songs, like legends, strange to hear." 

A fable of a different kind, yet not far behind the 
legend of the crossbill in beauty and poetic feeling, 
is that of the Peacock's hatred of gold. So intense is 
its dislike of this much prized metal that it will not 
alight on ground where it may be found. Major 
Campbell writes of this fable in an interesting and 
neatly worded poem: 

" The peacock with its plumage rare 
Is a holy bird and wise; 
For he knows that gold is an evil thing. 
From which foul thoughts and fancies spring, 
To blind our mortal eyes; 
He knows It is the seed of sin 
Whose fruit may ripen the soul within; 
For (if legends tell true) he will not tread 
On the earth of the track that covers its bed." 

Why the peacock, of aH birds, should be singled 
out to assume the r61e of a mammon-hater we are 
not told, nor is it easy to discover. From his gaudy 
plumage and proud demeanour, one would hardly 
suppose that he had so strong an antipathy to gold 
or ornament of any sort. 



136 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

A very quaint and weird superstition, which was 
common in the days when sprites and pixies were 
supposed to hold midnight revels, and, for good or 
ill, pay visits to mortals in whom they were in- 
terested, was that at the first crow of the Cock at 
early morn the spirits which had been at liberty since 
midnight, goblins, pixies, fairies, and all immortals, 
betook themselves to their own abodes. 

" Now it's the time of night 

That the graves all gaping wide, 
Every one lets forth his sprite, 
In the church-way paths to glide." 

There are many references to this old superstition 
in our literature, quite the best of which is in the 
opening scene of Hamlet, where, on the castle plat- 
form, we find Bernardo, Horatio, and Marcellus 
discussing the subject after the precipitate disappear- 
ance of the melancholy ghost of Hamlet's murdered 
father. 

^'■Bernardo. It was about to speak when the cock crew. 

Horatio. And then it started, like a guilty thing 
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard 
The cock, that is trumpet to the morn, 
Doth with his lofty and shrill sounding throat 
Awake the god of day: and at his warning, 
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air, 
The extravagant and erring spirit hies 
To his confine: and the truth herein 
This present object made probation. 

Marcellus. It faded on the crowing of the cock." 

This barn-door signal for the return of spirits and 



THE cock's first CROW. I37 

fairies to their own quarters is mentioned by Milton 
in his poem "L' Allegro." In this instance the 
immortal concerned is a "goblin," and the poet 
introduces the quaint custom of leaving a bowl of 
milk for the goblin to drink as a reward for his 
midnight labours. We read: 

"How the drudging goblin sweat 
To earn his cream-bowl duly set, 
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn, 
His shadowy flail hath thresh'd the corn, 
That ten day-labourers could not end; 
Then lies him down the lubber fiend, 
And stretch'd out all the chimney's length, 
Basks at the fire his hairy strength; 
And crop-full out of doors he flings 
Ere the first cock his matin rings." 

David Mallet, or Mallock, the Scotch poet, refers 
to the superstition in his poem "William and 
Margaret " : 

"'Twas at the silent solemn hour 
When night and morning meet; 
In glided Margaret's grimly ghost 
And stood at William's feet." 

Then Margaret proceeds to reproach her lover itm 
his unfaithfulness, which has caused her death: 

"'Awake !' she cried, 'thy true love calls. 
Come from her midnight grave: 
Now let thy pity hear the maid 
Thy love refused to save. 



138 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

This is the dark and dreary hour 

When injured ghosts complain; 
When yawning graves give up their dead 

To haunt the faithless swain.'" 

But while she still upbraids her trembling William 
the cock crows : 

'" But hark ! the cock has warned me hence; 
A long and last adieu ! 
Come see, false man, how low she lies 
Who died for love of you.'" 

In his poem, "Mary's Dream," John Lowe 
describes a similar incident. In this case, however, 
the ghost is a male, the sailor-love of Sweet Mary, 
who dreams "of Sandy far at sea." Sandy comes 
to her bedside and tells her that he has perished, but 

"The storm is past and I at rest; ^ 

So Mary weep no more for me ! " 

But while the ghost is speaking comfort to the girl, 

" Loud crowed the cock, the shadow fled, 
No more of Sandy could she see; 
But soft the passing spirit said, 
' Sweet Mary, weep no more for me.'" 

Herrick has a passage in one of his " Hesperides," 
in which the cock recalls his mistress while she is 
inviting him to Elizium : 

" But harke, I heare the Cock, 
(The bellman of the night) proclaime the clock 
Of late struck one; and now I see the prime 



A CHRISTMAS FABLE. I39 

Of day break from the pregnant East, 'tis time 

I vanish; more I had to say; 

But night determines here, Away." 

Ben Jonson, in his Masque of Queens, gives the 
cock-crow as the signal for witches to cease from 
their loathsome practices : 

" I last night lay all alone 
On the ground to hear the mandrake groan; 
And plucked him up though he grew full low; 
And as I had done the cock did crow." 

In the scene from Hamlet which I have quoted, 
Marcellus goes on to relate a pretty fable which, 
however poetic it may be, I am glad to say for the 
comfort of our slumbers is easily proved untrue — 
that at Christmas-time the cock does not cease to 
crow throughout the night, so that spirits may not 
desecrate the season of our Saviour's birth : 

" Marcellus. Some say, that ever 'gainst that season comes 
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated. 
The bird of dawning singeth all night long: 
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad; 
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike. 
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm. 
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time." 

Tennyson, in his " Morte d'Arthur," has a refer- 
ence to this poetic fable : 

" The cock crew loud: as at that time of year 
The lusty bird takes every hour for dawn. 

I awoke, and heard indeed 
The clear church bells ring in the Christmas morn.'' 

10 



140 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

How often we hear the words " Halcyqn Days" 
spoken of without thinking, or perhaps caring to 
know, how they entered into our common phrase- 
ology. We know the meaning which they convey 
— days of tranquillity ; or, as the dictionary tells us, 
" days of quiet prosperity." But Halcyon Days are 
more than a mere current phrase, they are a link 
which unites us with a very ancient superstition. 
The halcyon of the ancients was the Kingfisher, that 
beautiful, but now unfortunately rare, bird, which 
the gun of the collector seems likely to make alto- 
gether extinct; and it was the poetical notion of 
these people that the kingfishers possessed the 
power of keeping the water calm while they built 
their nests upon its surface. The days during which 
the water was said to remain quiescent were the 
seven days before the winter solstice and the seven 
days after, and were known as Halcyon Days — days 
during which the water remained calm. The ancient 
fable associated with the name of these resplendent 
birds is replete with a tender charm and pathos 
which is worth mentioning in the interest of those 
who have not heard it. 

Ceyx the King of Trachyn, being disturbed in his 
mind respecting the fate of his brother, determines 
on consulting the oracle at Claros, and makes known 
his intention to his wife, Halcyone. She pleads 
with tears that he will take her with him and let 
her share by his side the dangers of the long and 
hazardous voyage; but Ceyx cannot think of his 



HALCYON DAYS. 14I 

beloved Halcyone being placed in such a direful 
position, and he gently refuses her request. Then 
Halcyone seeing that her request will not be granted, 
and feeling a presentiment of the fate which is to 
overtake her husband, falls at his feet in a swoon. 
When she raises her weeping eyes the ship is on the 
seas and Ceyx is waving his hand to her in farewell ; 
and, watching it till the sails disappear from view, 
Halcyone returns to her home and weeps for her 
beloved husband. True to the presentiment of 
Halcyone, a great storm overtakes the ship on 
which Ceyx is journeying to Claros, and, unable to 
battle with the waves, it sinks to the bottom of the 
ocean. Ceyx, with a few of the sailors who do not 
go down with the sunken vessel, clings to a spar 
and for a while keeps upon the surface of the water; 
but presently a great dark billow overwhelms him, 
and he is engulfed. All this while, faithful Halcyone 
is praying for the safety of her husband, and making 
every preparation for his return before the end of 
two months, as he had promised. But the fate of 
her husband is made known to her. Morpheus flies 
through the dark to her bedside, and taking upon 
him the form of the ill-fated Ceyx, tells her that the 
prayers she has offered in his behalf have availed 
him nothing, for he has perished on his voyage. 
Halcyone, on hearing this dire news, is overcome 
with anguish. She wildly beats her face and breast, 
and rushing to the sea-shore, where she had last 
seen her husband when he set sail to Claros, she 



142 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

declares that she cannot live without him, and re- 
solves to go to him in the sea. But while she is 
standing by the side of the sea, she sees a body 
floating upon the water, and, as she watches it, the 
waves bring it nearer and nearer to her. Then she 
recognises in this body the form of her unfortunate 
husband, and she springs upon a mole in the sea to 
clasp him. But, even as she leaps upon the stones, 
wings bear her upon the surface of the water, and 
she becomes transformed into a kingfisher. With 
her bill she kisses the dead face of her beloved Ceyx ; 
with her wings she embraces him, and the gods 
having compassion upon her, change her husband 
also into a kingfisher so that as birds their love 
might remain unchanged. And thereafter, when 
they rested upon the face of the waters, the sea 
remained calm, and "the passage of the deep was 
safe." 

As might be supposed, so beautiful and tender a 
story has commended itself to the fancy of the poets. 
Very few of the many references to the fable must 
suffice : 

" O magic sleep ! O comfortable bird 
That broodest o'er the troubled sea of mind 
Till it is hush'd and smooth."— Keats. 

" And close beside her lay a delicate fan. 
Made of the halcyon's blue wing; and when 
She looked upon it, it would calm her thoughts 
As that bird calms the oc^xa!'— Longfellow. 



FABLES ABOUT KINGFISHERS. I43 

"And, over all, the blessed sun, 
Telling of halcyon days begun." — D. M. Moir. 

" The weary there lay down to rest. 
And there the halcyon built her nest." 

—J ames Montgomery. 

" While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed waves.'' 

—Milton. 

" So shall the Church, thy bright and mystic bride. 
Sit on the stormy gulf a halcyon bird of calm." 

—H. H. Milman. 

" Far, far away, O ye 
Halcyons of memory. 
Seek some far calmer nest 
Than this abandoned breast." — Shelley. 

So long as this last-named poet dealt with the 
halcyon as a symbol of tranquillity he was safe, 
but when he overstepped this limit and introduced 
natural history into his poetry, he at once fell 
into a great error. Had he watched " two azure 
halcyons " procuring their food, he would not have 
ventured to write: 

" I cannot tell my joy, when, o'er a lake 
Upon a drooping bough with night-shade twined, 
I saw two azure halcyons clinging downward 
And thinning one bright bunch of amber berries. 
With quick long beaks, and on the deep there lay 
Those lovely forms imagM as in a sky." 

"Amber berries" are a very strahge diet for fish- 
eating birds ! 

Figuier, the celebrated naturalist, tells us that to 



144 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

the dead body of the kingfisher " the attributes of 
turning aside thunderbolts, of giving beauty, peace, 
and plenty, and other absurdities were ascribed. 
Even now, in some remote provinces in France, the 
dead birds are invested with the power of preserving 
woollen stuffs from the attacks of moths ; hence 
they are called moth-birds by drapers and shop- 
keepers." 

Another faculty which the dead body of the king- 
fisher is said to possess is that of pointing its bill in 
the direction from which wind may be expected. 
There seems to be a reference to this quaint super- 
stition in Dryden's " Hind and Panther," although 
no mention is made of the bird itself: 

" High on the oak, which never leaf shall bear, 
He breathed his last, exposed to open air; 
And there his corpse unblessed is hanging still, 
To show the change of winds with his prophetic bill." 

Dryden is here writing of the martin, but that the 
"prophetic bill" has reference to the superstition 
mentioned above seems certain, for there is no such 
belief associated with the martin. 

Of that social, pugnacious little bird the Robin- 
Redbreast, 

" Sweetest of all the feathered throng," 

many pretty fables are told, and there are no stories 
about any of our birds more charming than how the 
robin's breast became red. In England there are 



LEGENDS OF THE ROBIN. I45 

two of these legends, both of which have their 
foundations in an act of charity, one to our Saviour, 
and the other to poor tormented souls in hell. The 
first of these legends is that when the Saviour hung 
in agony upon the Cross a sympathetic robin, then a 
plain, unattractive little bird, pitied His sufferings 
and wrested the thorns from the crown which tore 
His brow. In performing this act of charity the 
blood from the thorn-marks dyed the bird's breast 
red, in memory of which the feathers have ever since 
retained this colour. 

The American writer, Delle Whitney Norton, has 
put this legend into poetry: 

" On fair Britannia's isle, bright bird, 

A legend strange is told of thee — 
'Tis said thy blithesome song was hushed 

While Christ toiled up Mount Calvary, 
Bowed 'neath the sins of all mankind ; 

And humbled to the very dust 
By the vile cross, while viler man 

Mocked with a crown of thorns the Just. 
Pierced by our sorrows, and weighed down 

By our transgressions, — faint and weak. 
Crushed by an angry judge's frown, 

And agonies no word can speak,— 
'Twas then, dear bird, the legend says. 

That thou from out His crown, didst tear 
The thorns, to lighten the distress. 

And ease the pain that He must bear, 
While pendent from thy tiny beak 

The gory points thy bosom pressed. 
And crimsoned with thy Saviour's blood 

The sober brownness of thy breast ! 



146 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Since which proud hour for thee and thine, 

As an especial sign of grace 
God pours Uke sacramental wine 

Red signs of favour o'er thy race ! " 

The other story is best told in the words of 
Whittier : 

" My old Welsh neighbour, over the way 

Crept slowly out in the sun of Spring, 

Pushed from her ears the locks of gray, 

And listened to hear the robins sing. 

Her grandson, playing at marbles, stopped, 

And, cruel in sport as boys will be. 
Tossed a stone at the bird, who hopped 

From bough to bough in the apple-tree. 

' Nay ! ' said the grandmother, ' have you not heard, 

My poor, bad boy ! of the fiery pit, 
And how, drop by drop, this merciful bird 

Carries the water that quenches it ? 

' He brings cool dew in his little bill, 

And lets it fall on the souls of sin : 
You can see the marks on his red bireast still 

Of fires that scorch as he drops it in. 

' My poor Bron rhuddyn ! my breast-burned bird. 
Singing so sweetly from limb to limb. 

Very dear to the heart of our Lord 
Is he who pities the lost like Him.'" 

In another poem by the same sweet singer of New 
England, we are told how the Algonquin Indians 
account for the redness of the robin's breast. This 
legend is really too romantic to omit, although, 



AN INDIAN STORY. I47 

according to my first intention, it should not have a 
place here : 

" Once a great chief left his son, — 
Well-beloved, his only one, — 
When the boy was well-nigh grown. 
In the trial lodge alone. 
Left for tortures long and slow 
Youths like him must undergo 
Who their pride of manhood test, 
Lacking water, food, and rest." 

And here seven days and seven nights he was kept 
until — 

" Wrung with pain. 
Weak from nature's overstrain," 

he moaned — 

" Spare me, father, for I faint ! " 

But " the chieftain, haughty eyed," was obdurate, 
wishing to see his son a great warrior, and so 
replying : 

" Better you should starving die 
Than that boy and squaw should cry 
Shame upon your father's son," 

he left the youth again in the trial lodge alone. 
But 

" When next morn the sun's first rays 
Glistened on the hemlock sprays," 

the chief went to the lodge with food for his brave 
lad, he "found the poor boy dead." And as they 



148 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

dug a grave for him they saw upon the lodge-top 
overhead a bird they had never seen before, 

" Preening smooth its breast of red," 

and the bird told them never more to mourn for 
him, because, it said, _„ 

" I, a bird, am still your son." 
Then it told them how as a 

" ' Friend of man, my song shall cheer 
Lodge and corn land ; hovering near 
To each wigwam, I shall bring 
Tidings of the coming spring.' 

Thus the Indian legend saith 
How, at first the robin came 
With a sweeter life from death 
Bird for boy and still the same." 

Wordsworth, it would seem, had in his mind the 
beautiful English legends of the robin-redbreast 
when he wrote : 

" Art thou the bird whom man loves best. 
The pious bird with the scarlet breast. 
Our little English robin?" 

And Thomson, similarly, writes of the redbreast as 
" Sacred to the household gods." 

But there are, perhaps, very few of us who think 
of these legends, or have even heard of them, when 
we give our warmest affection to this saucy, sociable 



THE BEST-LOVED BIRD. I49 

bird. It is for some other reason that the redbreast 
is universally loved, and that it has been chosen as 
an emblem of piety. Probably its trustful, sociable 
nature has awakened a responsive chord in our own 
hearts, for are we not generally touched by an 
appeal to our purest and truest instincts? Other 
birds are equally pretty and melodious, but none is 
so dear to us as the robin : 

" The bird, whom by some name or other, 
All men who know thee call thee brother. 
The darling of children and men." 

How touched were our impressionable little hearts 
in our baby days when we listened to the woful tale 
of the robin's death and his melancholy interment. 
How cordially we detested the sparrow, plain, 
chirruping plebeian, for letting his cruel arrow 
penetrate the red breast of our poor pet bird; and 
we felt a thrill of tender pity when we were told that 

" All the birds of the air 
Fell a-sighing and a-sobbing 
When they heard of the death 
Of poor cock robin." 

It seemed quite natural that the robin should be 
chosen from all other birds to perform the pious act 
of covering the poor Babes in the Wood with leaves; 
indeed, the robin is the very bird we ourselves would 
have chosen had we written the story. Imagine the 
giddy tomtit, or the stately wagtail, or the portly 
bullfinch, though he too has a red breast, or the 



ISO SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

gaudy goldfinch covering the little wanderers with a 
funeral pall of leaves and flowers ! No, only the 
robin would do. So it is to the robin-redbreast 
Herrick appeals for the same kindly office when he 
dies: 

" Laid out for dead, let thy last kindnesse be 
With leaves and mosse-work for to cover me : 
And while the Wood-nimphs my cold corps inter, 
Sing thou my Dirge, sweet warbling Chorister ! 
For Epitaph, in Foliage, next write this, 
Here, here, the tomb of Robin Herrick is.'' 

It is surprising how many ot our poets have left us 
a memorial of this pretty fable. In addition to the 
above, three others must suffice: 

" Their little corpse the robin redbreasts found. 
And strewed with pious bill the leaves around."— Gav. 

" Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren, 
Since o'er shady groves they hover. 
And with leaves and flowers do cover 
The friendless bodies of unburied men." 

—John Webster. 

" The redbreast oft at evening hours 
Shall kindly lend his litde aid. 
With hoary moss, and gathered flowers. 
To deck the ground were thou art laid." 

— William Collins. 

Webster's association of the Wren with the red- 
breast in covering "the bodies of unburied men" 
reminds us of the common supposition that Jenny 



THE KING OF ALL BIRDS. 151 

Wren, as the bird is called, and Cock Robin are 
linked together as husband and wife: 

" The robin and the wren 
Are God Almighty's cock and hen." 

Who has ever heard of a hen robin or a cock 
wren? But, unfortunately, poor Jenny Wren has 
no pretty fables to make her "pious," nor is she 
permitted to rank so high in the opinion of mankind 
as her "husband," 

" The darling of children and men." 

Indeed, all the fables told about her — or had we 
not better say him? since he is a king — are very 
much the reverse of complimentary. He is supposed 
to be an emissary of the devil, and to have obtained 
his ancient title of " King of all Birds" by perpetrat- 
ing a fraud. As we are told in Grimm's story of 
"King Wren": 

" In a grand assembly of all the birds of the air, it was 
determined that the sovereignty of the feathered tribe should 
be conferred upon the one who would fly highest. The 
favourite was, of course, the eagle, who at once, and in full 
confidence of victory, commenced his flight towards the sun; 
when he had vastly distanced all competitors, he proclaimed 
with a mighty voice his victory over all things that had 
wings. Suddenly, however, the wren, who had secreted 
himself under the feathers of the eagle's crest, popped from 
his hiding-place, flew a few inches upwards, and chirped out 
as loudly as he could, ' Birds, look up and behold your king'; 
and was elected accordingly.'' 

This fraudulently obtained title of "King of all 



152 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Birds" is of very antique origin. Tradition dates it 
as far back as the days of the Druids, and the Manx 
name for the bird, Dreatn, is derived from the two 
words druai dryw, the Druid's bird. The name of 
the wren in several European languages upholds this 
kingly title, and at the same time shows that the 
source of it must be at least as ancient as tradition 
makes it. For example, the Latin name of the bird 
is Regulus; the French, Roitelet; Welsh, Bren 
(king); Teutonic, Konig Vogel (king bird); Dutch, 
Konije (little king). 

While referring to this subject in his Collectanea 
de Rebus Hibernicis, Colonel Vallency says : 

"The Druids represented this as the king of all birds. 
The superstitious respect shown to this little bird gave 
offence to our first Christian missionaries, and by their 
commands he is still hunted and killed by the peasants 
on Christmas Day, and on the following (St. Stephen's Day) 
he is carried about hung by the leg in the centre of two 
hoops crossing each other at right angles, and a procession 
made in every village of men, women, and children, singing 
an Irish catch, reporting him to be the king of all birds." 

One of the verses of this "catch" to which the 
writer refers is as follows : — 

"The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, 

We have caught, St, Stephen's Day, in the furze; 
Although he is little, his family's great, 
I pray you, good dame, do give us a treat." 

The hunting of the wren here alluded to on St. 
Stephen's Day, or during Christmas week, was 



HUNTING THE WREN. 153 

formerly common in Ireland, the Isle of Man, some 
counties in England, and in certain parts of the 
Continent ; nor is the old custom even yet altogether 
obsolete, though it is mainly confined to the senseless 
massacre of the birds by schoolboys. 

Another reason for the hunting of the wren is 
given by Aubrey in his Miscellanies. He says that 
after a battle in Ireland, " a party of the Protestants 
had been surprised sleeping by the Popish Irish, 
were it not for several wrens that just wakened them 
by dancing and pecking on the drums as the enemy 
were approaching. For this reason the wild Irish 
mortally hate these birds to this day, calling them 
the devil's servants, and killing them wherever they 
can catch them; they teach their children to thrust 
them full of thorns ; you'll see sometimes on holidays 
a whole parish running like madmen from hedge to 
hedge a wren hunting." 

Whatever may have been the origin of this quaint 
but cruel custom, it spread so quickly that two 
centuries ago the inhabitants of villages far enough 
remote from Ireland to be uninterested in the squab- 
bles between Romanists and Protestants turned the 
hunting of the wren into an annual festival. The 
custom as it was carried out in the Isle of Man 
until comparatively recent days is well described 
by George Waldron in his Description of the Isle of 
Man. The following extract from this work appears 
in the Mona Miscellany., vol. xvi., for the use of 
which I am much indebted to Mr. Thomas Cowley, 



154 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Ramsey, Isle of Man. The period of which Mr. 
Waldron writes was about two centuries ago. He 
says: 

"On the 24th of December, towards evening, all the 
servants in general have a holiday; they go not to bed 
all night, but ramble about till the bells ring in all the 
churches, which is at twelve o'clock; prayers being over, 
they go to hunt the wren, and after having found one of 
these poor birds, they kill her, and lay her on a bier with 
the utmost solemnity, bringing her to the parish church, and 
burying her with a whimsical kind of solemnity, singing 
dirges over her in the Manx language, which they call her 
knell, after which Christmas begins." 

Commenting on this, the editor of the Miscellany, 
William Harrison, says: 

" This custom of ' Hunting the Wren ' has been a pastime 
in the Isle of Man from time immemorial, and is still (1869) 
kept up on St Stephen's Day, chiefly by boys, who at early 
dawn sally out armed with long sticks, beating the bushes 
until they find one of these birds, when they commence 
the chase with great shoutings, following it from bush to 
bush, and when killed it is suspended in a garland of 
ribbons, flowers, and evergreens. The procession then 
commences, carrying that 'King of all the Birds,' as the 
Druids called it, from house to house, soliciting contribu- 
tions, and giving a feather for luck ; these are considered an 
effectual preservative from shipwreck, and some fishermen 
will not yet venture out to sea without having first provided 
themselves with a few of these feathers to ensure their safe 
"return. The dreain, or wren's feathers, are considered an 
effectual preservative against witchcraft. It was formerly 
the custom in the evening to inter the naked body with great 
solemnity in a secluded corner of the churchyard, and con- 
clude the evening with wrestling and all manner of sports. 



A MANX WREN-SONG. 155 

" The custom is not peculiar to the Isle of Man, for we find 
it mentioned by Sonnini in his travels, that ' the inhabitants 
of the town of Cistat, near Marseilles, armed with sabres and 
pistols, commence the anniversary by hunting the wren, and 
when captured is suspended, as though it were a heavy bur- 
den, from the middle of a long pole borne on the shoulders 
of two men, carried in procession through the streets, and 
weighed on a balance.' 

" Crofton Croker, in his Researches in the South of Ireland, 
1824, mentions this custom as prevailing there, and in Hall's 
Ireland it is also recorded, to which is added the air to the 
song as penned by Mr. Alexander D. Roche, as also a 
spirited woodcut of the wren-boys with their garland. The 
air is also given in Barrow's Mona Melodies, 1820." 

There are various versions of this song; one of 
these, taken down by Mr. Harrison from a company 
of "wren-boys" in 1843, is a curious piece of com- 
position. Beginning with the party going to the 
woods in search of a wren, the story is sung of its 
capture, death, and final consumption. The Manx 
air to which the song is sung is a spirited and 
"catchy" melody, and has deservedly become 
popular in the island. One verse of the song must 
suffice as an example of all the others : 

"We'll away to the woods, says Robin to Bobbin; 
We'll away to the woods, says Richard to Robin; 
We'll away to the woods, says Jack of the Land; 
We'll away to the woods, says every one." 

The next verse consists of the line 

"What shall we do there, says Robin to Bobbin," 

II 



156 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

repeated as above, and following this comes another 
line treated in the same way : 

" We will hunt the wren, says Robin to Bobbin," 

and so on all through the song. 

A curious feature of "Hunt the Wren," and one to 
which the editor of the Miscellany calls attention, is 
" that wherever we find this peculiar custom prevail- 
ing, it is always attended with appliances, as if the 
object sought for was one of extraordinary bulk or 
weight, instead of being one of the most diminutive 
of our feathered tribe." 

Thus we have the lines : 

" How shall we get him home? says Robin to Bobbin," 

and the reply in the next verse is : 

" We'll hire a cart, says Robin to Bobbin." 

Following verses tell how the pigmy bird is boiled 
"in the brewery pan," placed therein with "iron 
bars and a rope," taken out with "a long pitchfork," 
and eaten with "knives and forks." 

In Sonnini's description of the custom in France 
he tells us that the wren was hunted with "sabres 
and pistols," and when captured was " suspended, 
as though it were a heavy burden, from the middle of 
a long pole borne on the shoulders of two men." 

" The origin of this," says Mr. Harrison, " is not men- 
tioned by any writer that I have consulted; it may, perhaps. 



WREN-HUNTING ALMOST EXTINCT. 157 

be accounted for by the desire to render every homage to so 
important a personage as 'the king of all birds,' Who, like 
other potentates, requires every appliance that can be 
devised to uphold and maintain his dignity; whatever the 
origin, however, it is certain that it has continued from the 
earliest ages. The old tune of ' Hoist, hoist,' is said to come 
from the Anglo-Saxon times, and is the burden of the song 
as sung in Devonshire in Christmas week, where the villagers 
formerly suspended the wren from a heavy pole and carried 
on their shoulders as a mighty burthen. They pretended 
to hoist the monstrous bird into a waggon, singing as 
follows: — 

' I've shot a wren, says Robin to Bobbin; 
Hoist! hoist! says Richard to Robin; 
Hoist! hoist! says John all alone; 
Hoist! hoist! says every one,'" 

and so on, alwrays chorusing with affected labour 
and exertion, "Hoist! hoist!" 

Happily for the preservation of this pretty, restless 
little bird, the stupid and wicked custom of hunting 
it at Christmas-tide is almost extinct, and will, I hope, 
soon be entirely so. In whatever way the custom 
originated, nothing good could come of it. Quite 
the reverse, it fostered a spirit of wanton destruction, 
which, unfortunately, is already too prominent a 
characteristic of the average boy, and it was a gross 
injustice to the smallest and least harmful of all our 
feathered friends. In England, I am glad to say, the 
custom never obtained any very great vogue. To 
most people little Jenny Wren has always been a 
bird to be protected, "an unlucky bird to kill;" 
even to desecrate their nests would bring misfor- 



158 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

tune to the rash destroyer, for, as I have said 
elsewhere — 

" The robin and the wren, 
Are God Almighty's cock and hen." 

" Him that harries their nest. 
Never shall his soul have rest;" 

or, as an old poet renders the same adage — 

" I never take away their nest, nor try 
To catch the old ones, lest a friend should die; 
Dick took a wren's nest from his cottage side. 
And ere a twelvemonth past his mother dy'd." 

That prettily-coloured and sweet-voiced bird the 
Yellowhammer is another of our feathered friends 
who unjustly suffer at the hands of thdughtless 
people. 

" Fair plumaged bird! cursed by the causeless hate 
Of every schoolboy." 

Youngsters seem to think they are doing a proper 
and natural thing in wounding the bird or ruthlessly 
tearing its nest to pieces; and this dislike, sad to 
say, in country districts is shared by older people 
who should have more sense with the increase of 
years. Most probably the persecution of this pretty 
and gentle bird has arisen from a stupid old legend 
which says that on the first day of May the Devil 
inoculates the yellowhammer with three drops of 
his own blood. But how many of the boys or men 
who persecute the yellowhammer can give any 



THE OSTRICH. 159 

reason why they do so? They are prejudiced 
against it, but they little know that their 
prejudice has arisen from so stupid and wicked 
a belief! 

From our earliest days we have been ready to 
accept any strange stories about Ostriches which 
our school-books and "popular" works of natural 
history have been pleased to tell us. We have 
been led to believe that these birds are 

" Silliest of the feathered kind," 

and when we have turned to our Bibles and read 
that "God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither 
hath he imparted to her understanding," we have 
considered the matter quite settled. But we 
shall do well not to arrive too hastily at any 
such conclusion. The ostrich is a bird which has 
been very much misunderstood. Its character and 
habits were described long before they were 
sufficiently investigated, and all sorts of silly 
stories were circulated about it, most of which 
had only a slight foundation of truth. Now that 
the birds are reared on farms by the thousands, 
very much after the manner of tame poultry, and 
there has been ample opportunity to study their 
habits and nature, the exaggerated yarns of an 
earlier day are being accepted at their proper 
worth. In some respects the ostrich displays a 
remarkable lack of intelligence, but the popular 



l6o SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

yarn that it hides its head in sand when pursued, 
under the fond delusion that because it cannot see 
its pursuers therefore they cannot see the bird 
itself, is utterly void of truth. When Moore tells 
us that 

" Whole nations, fooled by falsehood, fear, or pride. 
Their ostrich heads in self-illusion hide," 

he merely repeats a common fallacy, and, as a poet, 
is ready to introduce a serviceable illustration, for 
which he may be excused ; but it is significant that 
in the book of Job, where the character of the 
ostrich is sketched to some length, no mention is 
made of this supposed gross stupidity. The bird's 
habit of burying her eggs in sand and leaving them 
to hatch by the heat of the sun is mentioned in 
several verses: — 

" Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or 
wings and feathers unto the ostrich? 

Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them 
in dust, 

And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the 
wild beast may break them. 

She is hardened against her young ones, as though they 
were not hers: her labour is in vain without fear." 

In Lamentations there is also a reference to this 

habit : 

"Even the sea-monsters draw out the breast, they give 
suck to their young ones: the daughter of my people is be- 
come cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness." 



OSTRICHES IN FARMS. l6l 

The poets, too, have caught hold of this want of 
maternal instinct: 

" Hast thou expelled the mother from thy breast. 
And to the desert's mercies left thy nest?" 

asks Montgomery, and the bird answers : 

"Ah ! no; the mother in me knows her part, 
Yon glorious sun is warmer than my heart." 

But Cowper, giving the bird no opportunity of 
speaking for herself, declares : 

" The ostrich, silliest of the feathered kind. 
And formed of God without a parent's mind, 
Commits her eggs, uncautious, to the dust." 

Montgomery is the more correct of the two. He 
supposes, as it were, that the ostrich in sandy and 
warm places uses the earth as an incubator, thus 
giving evidence of intelligence rather than a want 
of caution or the lack of " a parent's mind." It is 
proved beyond question in the great ostrich farms 
of South Africa, where the ground is not suited to 
incubation, that the ostrich is possessed of highly 
developed maternal instincts; indeed, both the cock 
and the hen take their proper share in the process of 
hatching the eggs, and woe be to any venturesome 
stranger who incautiously wanders too near their 
nest. At such a time the cock bird becomes a 
veritable fury, and one kick from his horned foot 
means certain disablement, and very probably death. 



l6a SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

In addition to the fable of burying its head in 
the sand, the ostrich has derived its character of 
stupidity from its habit of swallowing large solid 
substances to assist its digestion. Of this habit 
very much might be said. Buffon declares that 
they would eat pieces of "red-hot iron" in small 
quantities; and the Arabs are serious in believing 
that their staple diet consists of stones and bits of 
iron. Cuvier states that in the stomach of an ostrich 
he discovered that not only were pieces of iron 
"worn away as they would likely be by trituration 
against other hard bodies, but they had been con- 
siderably reduced by some digestive juice, and pre- 
sented all the evidence of actual corrosion." Dr. 
Shaw says that he has seen an ostrich swallow 
bullets which came hot from the mould. That 
ostriches do actually swallow, and seem to appre- 
ciate, pieces of iron and brass I have had the oppor- 
tunity of proving to my own satisfaction. 

While strolling near a large ostrich farm in 
Cape Colony a few years ago, I thought that, as 
the chance presented itself, I would put to the 
test the stories I had read as a youngster respect- 
ing the "digestion of an ostrich," one of my earliest 
books on natural history having contained some 
of the stories I have mentioned above. There hap- 
pened to be at that moment a grand cock bird in 
brilliant black and white plumage standing close to 
the railings of the farm. Taking some brass military 
buttons from my pocket, I threw them, one by one 



THE BITTERN. 163 

into the enclosure. To my delight, this "steel 
digesting bird " lowered his snake-like neck and 
swallowed them, then looked up for more. I threw 
him a brass military badge, such as soldiers wear on 
their collars, and this he also consumed with the 
same apparent relish. Then, a young soldier who 
was with me, thinking to set the ostrich a task 
beyond his power, offered it part of a broken pocket- 
knife. To our amazement the ostrich accepted the 
gift with the same appreciation he had shown in dis- 
posing of the buttons and badge, and we began to 
wonder why he did not swallow the railings and 
obtain his liberty. Whether he lived to digest the 
substantial odds and ends we had given him I cannot 
say, but that he actually swallowed them with 
apparent enjoyment and a desire "for more" there 
cannot be the least doubt; my own eyes were my 
proof. 

Much more might be written here about the 
ostrich, for Arab lore is full of fables concerning 
it: that it is the progeny of a camel and a bird — 
hence the ancient name Struthio camelus; that it 
never drinks water; throws stones at its assailants, 
and so on; but enough space has already been de- 
voted to this one species, and we have many others 
yet to notice. 

There is the old tradition which tells us that the 
Bittern makes "the quagmire reel" by thrusting its 
long bill in the mud and using it as a kind of musical 



164 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

instrument. Hence it derives its name of "mere 
drum." 

" And the bittern sounds his drum 
Booming from the sedgy sha.\lov/s."—Sco(t. 

"As a bitore bumbleth in the mire." — Chaucer. 

Thomson, adopting the old-time error for the 
purposes of poetry, writes: 

" So that scarce 
The bittern knows his time with bill engulpked 
To shake the sounding marsh." 

The Hoopoe is not a British bird, but as it is 
sometimes seen in this country, it will not be out of 
place to mention it briefly here. There are few 
birds which are credited with more curious attri- 
butes and regarded with more superstition than the 
hoopoe. 

"The Arabs have a superstitious reverence for it," says 
Dr. Tristram, "and believing it to possess marvellous medi- 
cinal quaUties, they call it the ' doctor bird.' Its head is an 
indispensable ingredient in all their charms, and in the 
practice of witchcraft. They also believe that it listens to 
whispers and betrays secrets, and, what is far more important, 
that it has the power of detecting water and of pointing out 
hidden wells and springs. These attributes have doubtless 
been suggested by the quaint and grotesque movements of 
its head and tall crest, which it erects in walking, and then, 
with solemn, portentous look, it bends its head down till the 
bill touches the ground, raising and depressing the crest at 
the same time." 

Gilbert White mentions the stately deportment 



TELLING THE BEES. 165 

of these pretty birds in his entertaining Natural 
History : 

" The most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts 
were a pair of hoopoes {upupa), which came several years 
ago in the summer, and frequented an ornamental piece of 
ground which joins to my garden for some weeks. They 
used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, 
many times in the day; and seemed disposed to breed in 
my outlet; but were frighted and persecuted by idle boys, 
who would never let them be at rest." 

On the Continent the hoopoe is the bird " upon 
whose head stands a crested plume," into which, 
says the ancient fable, King Tereus was transformed 
for his cruelty to trustful Philomela. 

There still exist in some of the more remote country 
districts quaint old superstitions about Bees which 
are not without a certain beauty and romance. One 
of these superstitions is that when a death takes 
place in the house to which the bees belong, in- 
formation must be formally given to the bees, or 
they will forsake their hives. Consequently a mem- 
ber of the family takes the door-key of the house, 
and, tapping three times upon the hives with it, 
seriously makes known to the busy little creatures 
the sad bereavement which has taken place. There- 
upon the bees, having listened to the deputation and 
mentally made a note of the sad demise, resolve that 
as the melancholy incident was not caused by undue 
negligence, and they have been properly informed of 



l66 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

it by an accredited representative, they will continue 
to fill their storehouses as if nothing had happened. 
On the day of the funeral the hives are draped with 
black cloth or crape, and in better-class families, who 
are not educated sufficiently to be entirely free from 
superstition, wine and cake are set apart for the 
bees, so that they may, as recognised mourners, 
take a full share in the family grief. Similarly, when 
a wedding takes place, the bees are properly informed 
of the interesting event, and take a fair share in the 
general rejoicing, their hives being decorated with 
red, which, under the circumstances, superstitious 
bee-keepers consider a more suitable colour than 
black. Not only in regard to funerals and weddings 
are the bees given information of events which are 
taking place, but in all matters of serious importance 
to their owners they are supplied with all the news 
that is considered important. 

"Londoners can hardly realise that superstitions about 
bird and beast are as rife in country places as they were 
in Shakespeare's day," says a writer in a northern daily 
paper. "A Bedfordshire woman was telling me the other 
day, says a correspondent, how her son had been stung 
all over by bees. 'And no other wonder,' she said; 'he 
never told them he was going to put them in a new 'ome, 
and everybody knows that before you goes to put bees in a 
new 'ome you must knock three times on the top of the 'ive, 
and tell 'em same as you must tell 'em when any one dies in 
the 'ouse. Ef you don't, they'll be spiteful, for bees is^under- 
standing creatures, an' knows what you say to them.'" 



In 



a charming and pathetic poem called "Telling 



whittier's poem on the bees. 167 

the Bees," Whittier very poetically describes the old 
English custom which has been referred to above, a 
custom which has also, it appears, been introduced 
into America. 

After a month's absence ("to love — a year") a 
lover returns to Fernside Farm, the home of his 
sweetheart: 

"Just the same as a month before, — 
The house and the trees, 
The barn's brown gable, the vine by the door, 
Nothing changed but the hive of bees. 

Before them, under the garden wall, 

Forward and back. 
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small. 

Draping each hive with a shred of black. 

Trembling I listened : the summer sun 

Had the chill of snow ; 
For I knew she was telling the bees of one 

Gone on the journey we all must go ! 

Then I said to myself, ' My Mary weeps 

For the dead to-day: 
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps 

The fret and the pain of his age away.' 

But her dog whined low ; on the doorway sill, 

With his cane to his chin, 
The old man sat ; and the chore-girl still 

Sung to the bees stealing out and in. 

And the song she was singing ever since 

In my ear sounds on : 
' Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence ! 
Mistress Mary is dead and gone I " 



l68 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Another notion respecting bees is that when a 
farmer's hive dies it will not be long before he him- 
self is compelled to remove from his farm. This 
belief is not without an element of truth, for a hive 
of bees rarely dies unless the season is so bad that 
it is disastrous to farming; consequently, where a 
farmer holds his farm on a yearly tenancy, it may 
follow that he will find it necessary to go elsewhere 
to build up his fortune. 

It is a strange coincidence that people who dwell 
in the country and have the best opportunities of 
observing the habits of birds and animals in their 
natural surroundings are more superstitious about 
them than dwellers in towns. Even at the present 
day, as we have already noticed, there linger, among 
the older people and in remote country districts, 
many curious ideas which a little personal investiga- 
tion of the subject lying close at hand would 
promptly and entirely dispel. But to go to country 
people for a knowledge of natural history is very 
much like going to Londoners for information re- 
specting the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, 
or the British Museum ; in either case one would 
be surprised at the lack of cognition and even of 
ordinary interest. Quite recently I heard of a 
country woman who was afraid to cross a common 
after dark "for fear of the Death's-head moths 
stinging her;" and, besides newts, there are many 
creatures which are invested, in the vulgar imagi- 



THE SHREW-MOUSE. 169 

nation, with the power of stinging — lizards, for 
instance : 

"Their softest touch as smart as lizards' stings!" 

The frail, harmless, little Shrew-mouse is another 
animal which country people have for centuries re- 
garded with aversion. Poor mite! it is not only 
harmless, it is useful, timid, weak, and was honoured 
by the Egyptians with a place among their sacred 
animals. But among country people the shrew has 
always had a bad name, and it has not altogether 
been lost in the advance of learning. This may be 
in some degree due to its offensive odour. In any 
case, the unfortunate pigmy is credited with being 
able to inflict a poisonous bite, and what is 
worse, with causing suffering to animals, and even 
the rotting of a limb by crawling over it. Much 
more so formerly than now, animals that were stiff 
in the joints or lame were said to be " shrew-struck," 
which meant simply that a shrew-mouse had run 
over the affected parts. Ridiculous as this super- 
stition was, the cure for the malady was equally 
ridiculous. This consisted of applying a "shrew- 
ash" to the part which had been injured, and a 
"shrew-ash" was practically "a hair of the dog." 
It was made by boring a hole in an ash-tree, insert- 
ing therein a shrew-mouse, sealing the hole with a 
wooden peg, and leaving the miserable little creature 
to die in its prison. The tree in which this cruel 
interment had taken place was then called a "shrew- 



170 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

ash," and so long as the tree remained a tree any 
twig of it placed on a "shrew-struck" horse, cow, 
dog, or any other animal would prove an effectual 
remedy. White mentions that near the church at 
Selborne "there stood, about twenty years ago, a 
very old, grotesque hollow pollard ash, which for 
ages had been looked on with no small veneration 
as 'a shrew-ash.'" The previous vicar, however, 
had a mind above such simple ignorance, and there- 
fore, "regardless of the remonstrances of the by- 
standers, who interceded in vain for its preservation, 
urging its power and efficacy," he had it destroyed. 

A similar character has been given to the Gecko, a 
species of lizard which is found in Palestine and 
Egypt. The natives implicitly believe that the gecko 
produces leprous sores by crawling over a person's 
body. Not only is this belief an utter fallacy, but 
it is moreover without any reasonable foundation, 
for the gecko is quite a harmless and inoffensive 
reptile. It is, however, a strikingly ugly animal, 
moves without the slightest noise, and is nocturnal 
in its wanderings. Probably these characteristics, 
together with the harsh "clucking" sound, from 
which it derives its name, have given rise to the 
unjust charges that have been brought against it. 

Quite as inaccurate and unwarranted as the super- 
stitions of the shrew-mouse and gecko is the sup- 
position that the Goatsucker, or Night-jar, drains milk 
from the udders of cows and goats, a supposition 



CHARGES AGAINST GOATSUCKERS. 171 

which, however, is common wherever the birds are 
to be found. Nor is* this the only evil practice with 
which the goatsucker is charged: it is also said to 
infect cows with a fatal malady called puckeridge. 
This, of course, is quite an erroneous idea. The 
malady is caused by an insect which lays its eggs 
along the chine of cattle, where the maggots 
when hatched eat their way beneath the hide and 
grow to a very large size. Similarly, in some hot 
climates there is a small insect called the jigger 
which burrows under the skin of people's feet, caus- 
ing intense pain, gangrene, and, if a remedy is not 
quickly found, even death itself. 

There are other superstitions connected with the 
goatsucker, each of which stamp it as a bird of ill- 
repute. The worst charge against it is that it will 
attack young children, which, perhaps it is unneces- 
sary to explain, has no foundation in fact. The 
goatsucker, like the swallow, is insectivorous, and 
therefore a bird which should be prized and pro- 
tected. Unlike the swallow, however, it is a bird of 
nocturnal habits, and no doubt this fact, together 
with its noiseless, ghost-like flight, as in the case of 
the owl, has given rise to the superstition that it is a 
bird of evil propensities and to be feared. 

Referring to the goatsucker's reputation for gorg- 
ing itself on milk without making payment in return, 
reminds me that the adder and hedgehog have also 
obtained the same notoriety. By what method they 
commit this act of pilfering I have not been in- 



\/ 



172 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

formed, but nature does not appear to have con- 
structed any of the three creatures with a view of 
their carrying out the duties of dairymaid in their 
own interest. Perhaps the adder is supposed to 
adopt the same ingenious scheme as that of a 
wonderful lizard which, A Survey of the Wisdom of 
God tells us, lives in many parts of Lower Egypt. 
The description of this lizard, and its acrobatic 
method of obtaining a drink, are well worth reading: 

" It resembles a crocodile, only that it is but three or four 
feet long, and lives wholly on the land. As it is exceeding 
fond of the milk of ewes and she-goats, it makes use of a 
remarkable expedient. It twists its long tail round the leg 
of the ewe or goat, and so sucks her at his leisure." 

A truly marvellous animal, and one which I should 
like to see during its business hours ! But what is 
the goat or ewe doing meanwhile? 

As a contrast to these superstitions, it is pleasing 
to know that while so many creatures are supposed 
to be able to inflict injury on people or other animals, 
or commit acts of pilfering, farmers are quite sure 
that the presence of Goats on a farm will keep away 
foot-disease. This is the sole reason for which goats 
are kept on many farms, but how they perform this 
kindly office I have not yet been informed. Quite 
recently I mentioned this superstition to a Yorkshire 
farmer, and though he himself did not keep a goat 
among his stock, he assured me that there was 



RATS AND SINKING SHIPS. 173 

nothing superstitious about the custom, for it was 
well known that foot-disease will not appear among 
animals where a goat is kept. The truth of this 
assertion he was unable to prove by circumstances 
which had come under his own observation; and, 
indeed, it would be a very difficult matter to prove. 
Only by introducing a goat among animals suffering 
from the disease, and carefully noting the effect, could 
anything like the truth of the supposition be estab- 
lished or contradicted. 

Turning to a superstition of quite another kind, 
it is a very common belief that Rats will leave a ship 
which is destined to become a wreck, or, as is some- 
times said, " Rats will leave a sinking ship." But 
this is even more nonsensical than the other, for 
rats will also leave a burning building, a house 
which is being broken up, or any such kind of 
danger, so nervous are they of being damaged. Not 
long ago I read in a newspaper, the copy of which I 
have unfortunately lost, that on a certain night a 
colony of rats was seen coming from a vessel which 
was moored alongside a dock. They made their 
exodus by way of the hawser, and it was well for 
them they changed their habitation. The vessel, a 
few days later, put out to sea and was lost ! 

That makes a really charming story, showing how 
much more clearly than men a certain despised and 
hunted animal may understand, and even anticipate, 
the mysterious dispensations of Providence! But 



174 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

rats will have to "look to their laurels." Cats are 
entering as competitors in this field of presentiment, 
and are likely to turn the rats out altogether. 

An account was given in 1901 of two cats which 
unmistakably gave warning of the accident that 
happened to the torpedo-destroyer Salmon — at any 
rate, so said some influential papers after the oc- 
currence. As the story goes, the Salmon and another 
vessel named the Sturgeon were lying side by side in 
harbour. On the former "dwelt two cats, who were 
the special pets of the crew, and who had never been 
known to show the smallest inclination to desert. 
But on this particular morning, in spite of being 
chased by the crew and worried by the dog, the cats 
never faltered in their determination to get off the 
Salmon and on to the Stut'geon, and when the first- 
named destroyer had weighed anchor for what was 
to prove the disastrous voyage, the cats made one 
last spring as the vessels separated, and landed 
themselves on the Sturgeon's deck." 

There ! After this instance of feline presentiment, 
any persons who get shipwrecked have only them- 
selves to blame. All they have to do to discover 
whether their voyage will be prosperous or other- 
wise is to take a cat on board and pin their welfare 
on its behaviour. If the cat curls comfortably in 
front of the cabin fire, all will be well ; if it persists 
in jumping ashore, " in spite of being chased by the 
crew and worried by the dog," their salvation 
depends on jumping ashore after the cat. 



children's pretty notions. 175 

There is a very pretty superstition among children 
that the gaudy Httle insect which is commonly known 
as the Ladybird, or Ladycow, is easily frightened on 
being told that a catastrophe has happened to her 
home. This is a very quaint and childlike notion, 
and is mentioned here only because it seems to be 
known in every country where the ladybird is found. 
The custom among children is to take one of the 
little insects in their hand and sing to it a pathetic 
ditty which, so far as I can quote it from memory, is 
usually worded : 

" Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home. 
Your house is on fire, and your children are gone." 

And when the ditty comes to an end, and the lady- 
bird is tossed into the air, the children suppose that 
the frightened little creature flies away to her 
" home " in terrible anguish, expecting to find it 
enveloped in flames, and her offspring burned to 
death. 

All this is very pretty and childlike in its innocency, 
and is a kind of notion which only very precise and 
unromantic people would wish to see superseded by 
plain matters of fact. Let the little ones keep their 
innocent imagination as long as they are able, for all 
too soon the charming days of frightened ladybirds 
and fairies and Santa Claus pass away, and prosaic, 
unromantic reality takes their place. 

While walking on the outskirts of Odessa, during 
a tour in Russia, with a friend who was born in that 



176 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

city, I came across a group of children who were 
raising their hands in the air and chanting a peculiar 
tune which 1 took to be some national hymn. Being 
interested in the actions of the children, and not 
understanding the language, I asked my friend for 
an explanation, and he replied, "Oh, they are 
singing that song about the ladybird." 

There is no more beautiful or more poetic story of 
any animal than how the Donkey was given the dark 
cross-shaped mark upon its back. When Christ was 
about to make His entry into Jerusalem, so tradition 
says. He chose an ass in preference to any other 
beast of burden, because it was a meek and humble 
creature and best suited to carry one who "made 
Himself of no reputation." But so that it might 
for ever more be known that God Himself had ridden 
upon the beast. He caused a dark cross to appear 
upon its back, typifying the kind of death He died. 
Similarly, it is said that the dark spot on a haddock 
represents the mark made by Peter's thumb when he 
took the fish out of the sea to obtain the tribute 
money. It would be a pity to spoil this pretty 
notion by suggesting that the haddock was not the 
fish which the disciples found so useful at a time of 
special need. 

The question now arises as to whether I shall 
conclude this section of my subject with the two 
foregoing pretty fables, or finish it with some 
remarks on that familiar butt 'and bone of contention 



THE SEA-SERPENT. 177 

the Sea-serpent. If I deal with the subject here, 
many will say that I should have inserted it in the 
next division, " Creatures of the Imagination ; " but 
were I to do so, others would at once say the sea- 
serpent is no creature of the imagination — it is a 
reptile which has an actual existence, and a belief 
in its corporality should not be treated as supersti- 
tion. In. this dilemma I shall take the course of 
writing upon the subject straight away. Of the 
sea-serpent very much might be written. This is 
also equally true of any other subject about which 
little or nothing is known. That the animal has any 
actual existence as a serpent is very doubtful, but 
that a marine monster of gigantic proportions more 
or less solid, and called by the name of " sea- 
serpent," is a reality there seems to be ample 
evidence to believe. 

Many persons who could have no ulterior motive 
in creating fairy-tales emphatically assert that they 
have seen such a monster, and have gone so far as 
to give graphic and minute details of its appearance. 
Not only once, but on several occasions, the whole 
of a ship's crew has been terrified by the appearance 
of some " great denizen of the deep," to which they 
have given the common name of sea-serpent, and 
not only have they given a realistic description of 
the awful monster, but they have even gone so far 
as to make a sketch of it — presumably after it had 
disappeared. Why should these men put them- 
selves to the trouble of concocting a yarn about 



178 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

these creatures ? Why should they deliberately set 
to work to combine in foisting a lie upon the public ? 
What benefit could they possibly derive from such a 
course beyond a moment's notoriety ? True, it may 
be suggested that the men were honest but mistaken. 
That is, however, merely a matter of opinion, and in 
no way helps to solve the problem. 

There have been sea-serpepts innumerable. The 
ancients told many strange stories of great serpents 
which lived in the ocean, and now and again, 
crawling upon the land, caused fearful havoc before 
they retired to their proper element. Such were the 
monsters which at the siege of Troy came up from the 
sea and crushed to death Laocoon and his two sons. 
Coming, however, to modern times, we have 
plenty of material to use in a chapter on sea- 
serpents ; but only one or two of the many 
monsters which have been described at various 
times can be mentioned here. In 1752 a marine 
monster answering to the accepted likeness of a 
sea-serpent was seen and sketched, and a full 
description of the animal, together with its likeness, 
was put into print. In 1848 also, the same serpent, 
or one of its family, was seen by the officers and 
crew of H.M.S. Dcedalus, who gave a clear de- 
scription of the monster they had seen. A few 
years later. Captain Harrington, of the Castilian, 
also saw the "serpent," and sent a detailed report 
of his observation to the Board of Trade bearing his 
own signature and those of his chief officers. In 



THE SEA-SERPENT DESCRIBED. 179 

1898 still another " serpent " was seen by the whole 
of the crew of a Dundee vessel, and their description 
of it, together with a sketch made on the spot, 
appeared in the daily papers. And now quite 
recently yet another monster has been sighted and 
graphically described. 

Let us take the description of two of these 
monsters and compare them. First, the "serpent" 
seen by Captain Harrington and the crew of the 
Castilian : — 

" While myself and officers were standing on the lee side 
of the poop looking towards the Island of St. Helena, we 
were startled by the sight of a huge marine animal, which 
reared its head out of the water within twenty yards of the 
ship; when it suddenly disappeared for about half a minute, 
and then reappeared, showing us distinctly its neck and 
head about ten or twelve feet out of the water. Its head was 
shaped like a long nun-buoy, and I suppose the diameter to 
have been seven or eight feet in the largest part, with a kind 
of scroll or tuft of loose skin encircling it about two feet from 
the top. The water was discoloured for several hundred feet 
from its head; so much so, that on its first appearance my 
impression was that the ship was in broken water produced 
by some volcanic agency. But the second appearance com- 
pletely dispelled these fears, and assured us that it was a 
monster of extraordinary length which appeared to be 
moving slowly towards the land. The ship was going too 
fast to enable us to reach the masthead in time to form a 
correct estimate of its length; but from what we saw from 
the deck, we conclude that it must have been over two 
hundred feet long. I am convinced that it belonged to the 
serpent tribe. It was of a dark colour about the head, and 
was covered with several spots.'' 

Now let us notice the description of the monster 



l8o SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

seen by the captain and crew of the Dundee vessel 
Dart, in 1898: — 

" It resembled nothing we could describe nearer than the 
ancient animals of prehistoric existence that we sometimes 
find described and illustrated by scientific men. Altogether 
it must have been 180 feet long. The head was of a long 
tapering shape. The mouth being open, we saw the full size 
of it. It must have been large enough to swallow at least a 
cow or a horse. The teeth shone in the faint light, and gave 
the animal a terrifying appearance. A long flipper-like 
appendage seemed to dangle from its body about fifteen or 
twenty feet from its head. The eyes shone with a green 
light, shifting from green to blue and often crimson, and 
drove terror into our hearts. Its body had a mane like a fin 
running down the full length of the back and breast. It was 
of a dark colour, and unlike any monster we in a natural way 
could have dreamed of." 



In the face of such minute details as these, 
certified in each case by several signatures, it would 
be idle to assert that the crews were under a total 
misapprehension. It is evident they saw that 
"something" which has obtained the popular name 
of sea-serpent. Both accounts describe the creature 
as "a monster," and after reading them we feel 
little inclined to envy the men who were favoured 
with a glimpse of it. But the two descriptions, 
separated as they are by a break of forty years, 
have much more in common than a simple allusion 
to the serpent as " a monster." In several details 
they bear a striking similarity. One monster, we 
are told, had a head shaped like "a long nun-buoy"; 



TWO ACCOUNTS COMPARED. l8l 

the other's head was of "a long tapering shape." 
One had "a kind of scroll or tuft of loose skin 
encircling it about two feet from the top ;" the other 
had "a flipper-like appendage," which "seemed to 
dangle about fifteen or twenty feet from its head." 
One was "over two hundred feet long;" the other 
"must have been i8o feet long." Each of the 
monsters was of "a dark colour," and both were 
near enough to the vessels to be seen distinctly — 
one " within twenty yards," the other so close that 
the crew could see the full size of its open mouth. 
Of course, it must be understood that in comparing 
two descriptions of a marine monster they will not 
tally in detail, especially in the matter of figures. 
We can fully understand that when an animal of 
"fearful and terrifying appearance" makes its 
appearance suddenly alongside a ship, the crew are 
not to be expected to measure the monster with any 
exactness. Taking this into consideration, the two 
descriptions have very much in common. 

What these apparitions were, however, may 
always remain a mystery. That they were sea 
monsters having a real existence I personally have 
no doubt. We may laugh at the old stories of 
travellers landing on the back of a sea-serpent and 
hoisting a Union Jack under the impression that 
they were " annexing " another new colony for the 
Crown, but we cannot so easily dispose of such 
detailed and properly attested descriptions as the 
foregoing; neither must we be too positive that we 



iSg SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

know of the existence of every animal which inhabits 
the deep sea. 

Numerous have been the attempts made to explain 
away sea-serpents — a school of porpoises, sharks, 
floating seaweed, a devil-fish trailing its long limbs 
behind it, a water-spout, — these are among the efforts 
to solve the problem; but those who have been among 
the fortunate few to obtain a glimpse of the 
mysterious monsters declare that none of these 
explanations will fully meet the case, and certainly 
they do not explain away the two monsters described 
above. We, therefore, who have not been so 
fortunate as to see a sea-serpent for ourselves must 
patiently reserve our criticism until such time as one 
is harpooned and towed into harbour. 



CREATURES OF THE 
IMAGINATION. 

" Far away in the twilight-time 
Of every people, in every clime, 
Dragons, and griffins, and monsters dire, 
Born of water, and air, and fire, 
Or nursed, like the python, in the mud 
And ooze of the old Deucalion flood, 
Crawl and wriggle and foam with rage 
Through dusk tradition and ballad age." 

— Whittier. 

However great a part imagination has played in 
crediting certain members of the animal kingdom 
with attributes and powers which they do not 
possess, the height of superstition is reached in the 
belief in monstrosities and creatures which have never 
had any real existence. The origin of most of these 
fabulous animals is lost in the dim reaches of 
antiquity, and only vague guesses can be made in 
respect thereof. It may be safely assumed, however, 
that many of them have developed by a gradual 
process of exaggeration — much in the same way as 
the herring on the beach became a whale. Others 
have been created by a direct efifort of the imagination. 



184 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

Bottlger, in writing of that monster of antiquity the 
Griiiin, says it was merely the creation of Indian 
tapestry-makers, but that the Greeks, seeing the 
tapestry at the court of the King of Persia, thought 
the animals depicted upon it were really inhabitants 
of India. It seems highly probable, therefore, that 
certain other fabulous animals have had a similar 
origin; while others again, such as the cockatrice and 
the basilisk, owe their creation to an exaggerated 
idea of the power of serpents, consequent upon the 
utter loathing in which they are universally held. 
But it is not my intention here to endeavour to trace 
the origin of these creatures of the imagination. In 
respect of many ot them the attempt would be futile, 
for, if I may so state the case, they have no beginning; 
they come up to us vaguely from the antediluvian 
age, a combined product of creation and imagination. 
Moreover, no good service could be rendered by such 
an effort. It will therefore be my purpose to deal 
only with such of the fabulous animals as I think are 
of special interest by reason of their prominence in 
our literature. 

It is much to be regretted that several of these 
monstrosities have been permitted to enter the pages 
of Holy Scripture: in most instances the translation 
is an utter violation of the original. Of course the 
reason is not far to seek. In the days of the 
Authorised Version the creatures to which I am 
referring— the cockatrice, dragon, satyr, unicorn, and 
Others— were believed to have a real existence, and 



THE BASILISK. 185 

their place in our sacred writings came largely as a 
matter of course, but their presence there to-day 
creates a real difficulty. 

The Revised Version of the Bible has gone very far 
towards removing this difficulty by giving to the 
animals wrongly translated their proper names; 
even now there are several passages which are 
in need of alteration. To any ordinary reader, the 
appearance in the sacred writings of creatures which 
are nowadays commonly known to have had no real 
existence is bewildering, and probably not a little 
unsettling. To such a reader my earnest advice is 
to study any good Natural History — such, for 
instance, as Dr. Tristram's, from which I have more 
than once quoted — and his difficulties will quickly be 
swept away. The creatures that have caused him 
so much perplexity — such as the dragon and the 
cockatrice — he will find are merely other names for 
animals with which he is, for the most part, quite 
familiar. 

Basilisk and Cockatrice have now become inter- 
changeable names for the same fabulous reptile, 
but originally they were distinct. The basilisk, or 
regulus of the ancients, was the king of all serpents; 
and, according to Pliny, was found in the African 
deserts, where it would appear to be a veritable 
despot. All other snakes fled from its awful presence 
with horrified precipitation; and even the flowers and 
fruits perished when touched by the poisonous fumes 
of its scorching breath. 



l85 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

" What shield of Ajax could avoid their death, 
By th' basilisk, whose pestilential breath 
Doth pierce firm marble, and whose baneful ey 
Wounds with a glance so that the soundest dy ?" 

Its progression was majestic in the extreme. It 
held itself erect, not trailing its body as in the 
manner of other serpents. Its eyes were red and 
fiery, its face pointed, and upon its head, as token of 
its sovereignty, it wore a crown. Shelley tells us 
that its skin was "green and golden," but these 
colours are apparently chosen for the sake of 
euphony, and not from any intention to describe the 
reptile accurately. Far otherwise, however, is the 
desire of the sagacious naturalist whose opinions on 
several matters of natural history I have introduced 
into this volume. He plunges boldly into sc de- 
scription of an animal which exists only in imagina- 
tion, and his description, to make matters worse, is 
plagiaristic: — 

"The cockatrice, or basilisk, is a kind of serpent of a reddish 
colour, and has a thick body, fiery eyes, and a sharp head, on 
which it wears a crest that looks like a crown. It has the 
honour to be called the king of serpents, because of its crown 
and majestic pace; and also because all other serpents are 
said to fly from its presence with dread The cockatrice in 
its motion lifts its head and the fore part of its body upwards, 
the middle and hinder parts only touching the ground. Its 
poison is said to be so extremely strong, that if any person is 
bitten by the serpent death speedily takes place." 

It is curious how so many writers who undertake 



serpents' crests. 187 

a description of a serpent portray the reptile as 
having a " crest." Here are a few out of many: — 

" As when some peasant in a bushy brake, 
Has with unwary footing press'd a snake; 
He starts aside, astonished when he spies. 
His rising crest, blue neck and rolling eyes." 

—Dry den ( VirgiVs "jEneid"). 

" He, bolder now, uncall'd before her stood, 
But as in gaze admiring; oft he bow'd 
His turret crest, and sleek enamell'd neck. 
Fawning; and lick'd the ground whereon she trod." 

— Milton. 

" The eagle, faint with pain and toil. 
Remitted his strong flight, and near the sea 
Languidly fluttered, hopeless so to foil 
His adversary, who then reared on high 
His red and burning crest, radiant with victory." 

— Shelley. 

" Soon he reached the fiery serpents 

With their blazing crests uplifted." 

— Longfellow. 

The idea of a " crest " has very probably arisen 
from the " hood " or inflation of the neck, which is a 
marked feature of some species of snakes when in a 
state of excitement. There is no kind of snake that 
wears a crest such as is described by the poets 
mentioned above, in association with the regal 
power of the basilisk. This fact does not, however, 
prevent the author of the book I have just mentioned 
from publishing an illustration of the basilisk wear- 
ing its crown with proper kingly dignity. The 

13 



l88 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

author in this instance has not been satisfied with 
describing the reptile as being " the king of serpents 
because of its crown," but he goes to the extreme of 
illustrating the creature with a woodcut, in which 
we see it with pointed nose, head raised aloft, coils 
of body typifying "majestic pace," and a solid 
kingly crown, such as the school-book pictures of 
our kings have made familiar, perched in a conse- 
quential way upon its head. 

The terrible power of killing people by the glare 
of its eyes, which the ancients attributed to the 
basilisk, is mentioned several times in the works of 
Shakespeare : 

" Here take this too, 
It is a basilisk unto mine eye."—" Cymbeline." 

" Come basilisk, and kill the innocent gazer with thy sight." 

—''Henry VI." 

" Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead." 

—" Richard III." 

It should be understood that the fabulous animal 
mentioned here, and frequently met with in early 
writings, is not the South American lizard of the 
same name. 

The Cockatrice, which we now understand to be 
the same fabulous reptile as the basilisk, superstition 
tells us was produced from a "cock's egg hatched 
by a frog!" Could imagination possibly have con- 
cocted anything more ludicrous ? In appearance it 



THE COCKATRICE. 189 

is said to differ in no respect from the basilisk, and it 
is credited with the same terrible power of killing 
people by its gaze. 

" Let them feel the utmost of your crueltyes; 
And kill with looks as cockatrices doo." — Spenser. 

" Here with a cockatrice' dead killing eye 
He raises up himself and makes a pause." 

— Shakespeare {"Lucrece"). 

" A cockatrice hast thou hatch'd to the world 
Whos« unavoided eye is murderous," 

Shakespeare (" Richard III."). 

The cockatrice is frequently mentioned in Holy 
Scripture, and always as a reptile of extreme 
malignity : 

" Out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, 
and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent." — Isaiah. 

"They hatch cockatrice' eggs, and weave the spider's web; 
he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed 
breaketh out into a viper." — Isaiah. 

"Behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, 
which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the 
'Lord.."— Jeremiah. 

It is quite evident that the writers of these and 
other passages where the word occurs wished to 
depict some reptile of more than ordinary malignity 
and venomousness. In the margin of the first two 
of the above passages we find the words " or adder"; 
but the adder is comparatively tame and innocuous 
when compared with the terrible reptile described by 
the sacred writers. In one of the quotations from 



igo SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

the book of Isaiah, the writer speaks of an egg which 
being "crushed breaketh out into a viper." This 
passage in no way helps us; rather the reverse, for a 
viper is a viviparous reptile. The root-word from 
which the fabulous cockatrice is taken is also am- 
biguous, meaning simply "to hiss." If we turn to 
the Revised Version in the hope of finding the difficulty 
overcome, we are led into a still deeper perplexity, 
for the revisers have simply substituted one fabulous 
reptile for another; they have merely altered " cocka- 
trice" to "basilisk." Far better would it have 
been to translate the root-word into the name of one 
of the several venomous snakes which are found in 
Egypt and Palestine — the cobra, the horned cerastes, 
or, more particularly, on account of its size and 
extreme venomousness, the daboia. It is highly 
probable that the last-named snake is that which the 
sacred writers wished to describe — the snake "which 
will not be charmed." 

Every nation has its own particular Dragon, or if it 
has not a dragon it has a kind of national pet in the 
form of some traditionary monster much after the 
same type. Go where you will you will find the 
brute. Its ugly form can be seen on the Chinese 
standards as well as on our own coins; its ancient 
haunts are pointed out in nearly every corner of the 
globe: there are dragons' caves and dragons' hills 
and dragons' mountains innumerable. It figures 
under some name or other in every literature — it is in 



THE WORLD-WIDE DRAGON. igi 

our own Bible. It_ was worshipped in Babylonia in 
the days of that empire's greatness, and as far east 
as China and India. It is such an ancient beast that 
its birth is lost in the mists of antiquity ; but it is also 
so modern that it constantly appears as a popular 
character in children's books, and its ugly figure is 
cunningly used to beautify wares of pottery. There 
is no getting rid of the dragon. Most ancient of 
beasts, he is still the most modern, and will be the 
most lasting. And yet he is only a fabulous brute 
— a type, a figure. He represents the power of 
evil, and wherever we hear traditionary tales of him 
we find that there is another type in contrast, the 
power of good, which goes forth to overcome him — 
the conflict of Evil with Good, and Good always 
gains the victory. Such is the story of the fair 
maiden of Drachenfels (or Dragon-field). Once 
upon a time, so the story goes, there lived a 
monstrous snake (or dragon), which wrought such 
havoc in this district on the Rhine that the pure 
white maiden went forth from the castle in all her 
loveliness and innocency to slay the brute. And the 
victory of St. George, our patron saint, the rescue of 
Andromeda by the valiant Perseus, Apollo's triumph 
over the malignant serpent — all these are but versions 
of one common legend, and all have their source in 
the Hindoo myth of Chrishna, who tore in pieces the 
body of the black and evil serpent which, concealed 
in the great river, had poisoned all who drank 
thereof. 



192 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

And can we not go back to Genesis and find 
there the fount from which all these legends have 
sprung ? — 

" I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and 
between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, 
and thou shalt bruise his heel." 

And then may we not go to the Mount of Calvary, 
and in the overwhelming tragedy of the Cross find 
there the consummation of all that these myths 
and legends have, by a mysterious intuition, been 
anticipating and depicting from time immemorial? 
Are not the words, "It is finished!" but the 
idealism of Chrishna's bloody hands and Apollo's 
swift sword ? The victory was won ! 

" And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which 
is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years. 

And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, 
and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations 
no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and 
after that he must be loosed a little season." 

It is not to be wondered at that when dragon 
worship and dragon legends have been almost 
world-spread, dragons under various forms should 
have found their way into Holy Writ. In the 
passage I have just quoted from the Apocalypse 
we have the dragon as we find it in the legends I 
have referred to — a symbol of Evil which is finally 
overcome by the power of Righteousness. But in 
the Old Testament the word "dragon" is used 
variously to represent an animal which inhabits 



OLD TESTAMENT DRAGONS. I93 

desert places, an aquatic monster, a large land 
reptile, and a serpent. In the first connection, 
"dragon" now appears in the Revised Version of 
the Old Testament as "jackal," which from its 
habit of frequenting "waste places," of "wailing," 
and of " snuffing up the wind," is without doubt 
the creature which the sacred writers intended 
to represent. In the passages where the name 
"dragon" is applied to an inhabitant of the deep 
the revisers have adopted the plan of retaining the 
old translation and adding a marginal note, " or 
sea monsters." There are, however, exceptions to 
this, as in Isaiah xxvii. : 

" He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.'' 
In the passage: 

" The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under 
feet" — [Psalm xd.), 

the word "dragon" has been altered to "serpent"; 
but in Deuteronomy xxxii., in a verse most 
obviously dealing with serpents of a deadly 
nature : 

" Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom 
of asps," 

"dragons" is retained without any marginal 
comment whatever. 

It is not easy to understand why the revisers 
should alter the text in some instances and not in 



194 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMAtS. 

others. When deaUng with animals which have had 
a real existence, and with which the writers them- 
selves were doubtlessly conversant, it would have 
been better to render the text a little vague rather 
than retain the name of a monster that every one 
knows is entirely imaginary. 

I have not thought it necessary to quote a 
description of this legendary monster. The finest 
>^I have read, and one which I think cannot be 
- ti^/beaten, is Spenser's (Book I., Canto xi.). 
-V 

The Unicorn is another creature which, in its 
generally recognised form, is simply a freak of the 
imagination; but the ancients implicitly believed 
in the real existence of the animal, and frequent 
references are made to it in their writings. Ctesias 
said unicorns had white bodies, red heads, blue 
eyes, and on their foreheads grew a single horn a 
cubit and a half long. " Drinking cups are formed 
of these, and those who drink out of them are said 
to be subject neither to spasm, nor epilepsy, nor to 
the effect of poison." Ctesias said he himself had 
seen the horn, which was very heavy and red; but 
he did not venture to say he had seen the beast 
itself. Pliny called the animal a monoceros, and 
described it as having the head of a stag, the body 
of a horse, the feet of an elephant, and the tail of a 
wild boar, and it had a single horn two cubits long 
projecting from the centre of its forehead. In 
describing the same animal, -fElian says it was as 



THE UNICORN. IQS 

big as a full-grown horse, with a mane and yellow 
woolly hair of greatest softness, with feet like the 
elephant, and the tail of the wild boar. Its horn 
was black, growing between the eyebrows, and was 
not smooth, but had natural twistings and a sharp 
point. 

It seems highly probable that the horn which 
these writers and "old Father Aristotle " had seen 
was the horn or tooth of the Narwhal, which 
was highly prized by the ancients, and was called 
the tooth of the unicorn. The description as given 
above fairly represents the horn of a narwhal which 
once belonged to me, though the measurements 
are considerably less. The narwhal's tooth was 
superstitiously supposed to possess the virtue of 
preventing poison taking effect, and we are told that 
Charles IX., fearful of being treacherously poisoned, 
was in the habit of placing in his wine-cup a piece of 
the "unicorn's tooth" to counteract the effect of 
any poison inserted therein. 

It is pretty much after the description of the animal 
given above that the unicorn now appears as the 
left-hand supporter of our British coat-of-arms. 

Frequent references are made in the Old Testa- 
ment to a creature called a unicorn, and in all 
instances it represents an animal of great strength 
and ferocity, but strangely enough an animal pos- 
sessing more than one horn : 

" He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn." 

— Numbers. 



196 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

"Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy 
crib?"— >*. 

" His horns are like the horns of unicorns : with them 
he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth." 
— Deuteronomy. 

" Save me from the lion's mouth : for thou hast heard me 
from the horns of the unicorns."— /"ja/wzj. 

There is every reason to suppose that the animal 
which the Old Testament writers intended should be 
recognised in the above passages was the Reem, a 
species of wild-ox which was formerly abundant all 
over Palestine, and indeed all over Europe, including 
our own islands. It was a beast of immense 
strength and great length of horn. To the Romans 
it was known as the Urus, to the old Germans as 
the Auerochs, but has now practically been hunted 
out of existence. 

" I clothed myself in thick hunting-clothes 
Fit for the chase of the urox or buffle." 

— Browning. 

In the Revised Version the word "unicorn" has 
in every instance been altered to " wild-ox." 

There is still another fabulous creature which has 
found its way into Holy Scripture without any ade- 
quate reason, that is the Satyr. The Satyrs in 
Greek and Roman mythology were a race of wood- 
land divinities who are invariably associated with 
the worship of Bacchus. They were popularly sup- 



SATYRS, HE-GOATS, OR DEVILS. I97 

posed to be the offspring of Mercury and Iphthime, 
or of the naiads, and were ugly, animal-like creatures 
with flat noses, large ears, and horns upon their 
foreheads. How came these hideous creatures, then, 
into the book of Isaiah ? — 

"Their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls 
shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there." 

" The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the 
wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his 
fellow." 

The marginal notes to these passages in the 
Revised Version give the alternative of regarding 
the satyrs as "he-goats," which is the meaning of 
the original; but the surroundings in which the "he- 
goats" are placed, their dancing and crying, seem 
to suggest that some other creature is intended. 
When we turn to Leviticus we find that the same 
word is translated "devils," and it is not improb- 
able that Isaiah wished to describe some fabulous 
creature or other, which, according to the popular 
belief of the times, inhabited all ruins and waste 
places. This view is made stronger by the fact that 
in the second of the above passages, if we continue 
the reading, we find that together with the satyr is 
Lilith the night-monster, a fabulous bird similar to 
our "night-crow," or " night- raven," of which I 
shall havp more to say later. The question is, how- 
ever, a difficult one to decide. Another view is, that 
baboons and not he-goats are the animals which the 



igS SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

prophet wished to describe, and, from his reference 
to their "dancing" and "crying," this translation 
is just as likely as the other. 

In South Africa I have many times watched these 
sportive animals leaping and gambolling among 
the rocks, or, as Isaiah puts it, "dancing," and 
have listened to their wild sounds of " ba-hoo, 
ba-hoo," as they "cried to their fellows." The 
desolation of Babylon and Idumea would be pre- 
cisely the kind of l6nely surroundings they would 
delight in. 

Leaving the fabulous animals of the Bible, we now 
come to the Phoenix. Perhaps no other fabulous 
creature has given more opportunity for poetic 
imagery than this remarkable bird. Poetry abounds 
with references to it; the Roman emperors stamped 
its figure upon their coins, typifying a new and 
glorious era under their rule; preachers use it as a 
symbol of immortality, the death of the human body, 
and its resurrection to a perfect and eternal life; 
a well-known insurance society has chosen it as its 
emblem, and portrays the wonderful bird in lurid 
colours proceeding from the midst of brilliant smoke 
and flame. This bird is said to have been a native 
of Arabia. In appearance it was like an eagle, but 
its plumage was brilliant with red and gold. Accord- 
ing to one account, it came to Egypt every five 
hundred years to the sanctuary dedicated to it 
there. The bird is said by ancient writers to have 



THE PHCENIX. I99 

appeared four times in Egypt, the last visit being 
under Tiberius in the year 34 a.d. 

" To all the fowls he seems 
A phoenix, gazed by all, as that sole bird 
When, to enshrine his relics in the sun's 
Bright temple, to Egyptian Thebes flies.'' 

— Milton. 

In the shrine of the temple it placed the body of 

its dead parent, enclosed in a large &%^ made of 

myrrh. When it felt its own end drawing near, it 

built itself a nest, to which it gave the power of 

generation, so that when its own demise had taken 

place another phoenix might rise to a new life from 

the same nest. This is one of the several fables of 

the phoenix. Another is that a worm proceeded from 

the body of the dead bird and developed into another 

phcenix : 

" Suddaine I beheld 
Where, tumbling through the ayre in firie fold. 
All flaming down she on the plaine was felde; 
And soon her body turned to ashes colde. 
I saw the foule, that doth the light despise. 
Out of her dust like to a worm arise." — Spenser. 

But neither of these birds is quite the bird with 
which we have become familiar in picture and quota- 
tion. Our phcenix is a bird which, when grown to 
the age of five hundred years — a tolerably good 
age even for a fabulous bird — and conscious of its 
approaching death, built for itself a funeral pyre of 
choice woods and sweet-smelling gums, beat forth 
devouring flames with its wings, and, being con- 



200 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

sumed, rose from its own ashes resplendent in new- 
ness of life : 

" My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth 
A bird that will revenge upon you all." 

— Shakespeare. 
" And that which was of wonder most, 

The phoenix left sweet Arable; 
And on a caedar on this coast 
Built up her tombe of spicerie. 
As I conjectured by the same 
Preparde to take her dying flame." 

— Matthew Roy don. 

" Sleep on, in visions of odours rest. 
In balmier airs than ever yet stirr'd 
Th' enchanted pile of that lonely bird, 
Who sings at the last his own death lay. 
And in music and perfume dies away." — Moore. 

" And glory, like the phoenix 'midst her fires, 
Exhales her odours, blazes and expires." 

" Behold her statue placed in glory's niche; 
Her fetters burst, and just released from prison, 
A virgin phoenix from her ashes risen." — Byron. 

"But when I am consumed with the Fire, 
Give me new Phoenix-wings to fly at my desire." 

— Keats. 
" In death I thrive: 
And like a Phenix re-aspire 
From out my Narde, and Fun'rall fire." 

— Herrick. 

The Griffin, which, like its relative the dragon, has 
found a permanent place in English art, because of 
its adaptability to design, deserves a paragraph to 



ORIGIN OF THE GRIFFIN. 201 

itself. As I have already pointed out, the griffin 
was in the first place the creation of Indian tapestry- 
workers, but being seen in their designs by Greeks 
at the Persian court, the griffin became firmly estab- 
lished as a creature having a real existence. So 
real was its existence, indeed, that the same ancient 
writers who were intrepid enough to describe the 
unicorn did not hesitate to give a description of the 
griffin. Ctesias says that the brute was so strong 
that it gained the victory over all other animals with 
the exception of the elephant and lion. In appear- 
ance it was very gorgeous. The feathers on its 
neck were blue and shining, its eyes were red and 
fiery, and it had the beak of an eagle, ^lian makes 
it a still more brilliant monster. The feathers on its 
back, he says, were black, those on its breast red, 
and it had white feathers upon its wings. The 
griffin was supposed to build its nest of solid gold 
in the mountains of India, which was its native 
place. It could be easily tamed — when taken very 
young! Though a native of India, the monster is 
alleged to have found its way to England — at least 
on one occasion. 

A man taking a walk, some centuries ago, in 
Leicestershire spied one of these terrible creatures 
stooping to drink at a pond, and tradition says that 
the man was very much upset. The place where 
the p^riffin was seen subsequently took its name from 
the monster, and the village to this day is called 
Griffidam. 



202 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

The appearance of the griffin, according to our 
modern idea, as may be seen from the rearing 
monstrosity near the Law Courts, does not alto- 
gether coincide with the description given by ancient 
writers. It is now usually represented with the 
body, feet, and claws of a lion, th^ head and wings 
of an eagle, the ears of a horse, a stiff, bristling, fish- 
like mane, and feathers upon its back. It is pre- 
cisely such a creature as a distorted mind might 
conjure up towards the early hours of the morning, 
or what might be the outcome of a deliberate in- 
tention to create something that was hideous and 
vile. John Bunyan succeeded brilliantly when he 
set to work to manufacture the monster ApoUyon : 

" The monster was most hideous to behold; it was clothed 
with scales like a fish (and they are his pride): he had wings 
like a dragon, feet like a bear, and out of his belly came 
forth fire and smoke, and his mouth was as the mouth of 
a lion.'' 

Of a similar kind was the beast which appeared to 
St. John in his great vision at Patmos: 

"A beast . . . having seven heads and ten horns, and 
upon his horns ten crowns . . . and the beast which I saw 
was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a 
bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion." 

No less horrible are the Harpies described in 
Virgil's ^neid: 

" Monsters more fierce offended Heav'n ne'er sent 
From hell's abyss." 



LILITH. 203 

" From the mountain-tops, with hideous cry, 
And clatt'ring wings, the hungry Harpies fly : 
They snatch the meat, defiling all they find. 
And, parting, leave a loathsome stench behind." 

And of the same extravagant and hideous kidney 
are chimeras, hydras, ghouls, gorgons, and many 
another vile product of a twisted imagination which 
I have neither the space nor the inclination to de- 
scribe. 

I must, however, before bringing to a conclusion 
this division of my subject, fulfil the promise I made 
to refer to Lilith or the "night monster'' of the 
Old Testament. 

In the authorised version of Isaiah xxxiv. 14 there 
is a passage reading as follows : 

" The screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself 
a place of rest.'' 

In the Revised Version the words '• screech owl" 
are rendered " night monster," with the marginal 
note Lilith. This is the only place in which ' ' Lilith " 
is mentioned, and a very interesting question is 
raised by the translation of it. According to the 
Rabbinical idea, Lilith is a spectre in the figure 
of a woman who, entering houses in the dead of 
night, seizes upon little children and bears them 
away to murder them. Now, if we turn to the 
Vulgate version of the Bible, we shall find the above 
passage rendered : 

14 



2Q4 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

"There hath the lamia lain down and found rest for 
herself." 

Here we have a similar meaning, the Lilith in this 
case becoming a lamia or witch. It is quite evident, 
therefore, that the creature concerned is a "monster" 
of evil disposition, and one that is, in popular estima- 
tion, to be dreaded. But the passage is far too 
vague to be able definitely to say what form the 
"night monster" takes. In almost every country 
there is "a terror by night," which takes the form 
of a bird, or beast, or " bogie," or something 
indefinite, but nevertheless horrible and terrifying. 
Sometimes it is an evil spirit which assumes animal 
form to perpetrate its villainies. In the East such 
monsters abound in popular imagination. While in 
South Africa, I was told about a "birdof night" whose 
scream, as it passed over the Boers' houses, made 
the inhabitants shiver in their beds. In England the 
"night-crow" or "night-raven" formerly created 
the same terror, though it is more than probable that 
the monster was nothing worse than some harmless 
nocturnal bird ; at any rate, there is no actual night- 
crow or night-raven in natural history. Several of 
our poets mention this "terror by night," and its 
associations mark it as an uncanny creature of odious 
repute : 

" The owl shriek'd at thy birth — an evil sign ; 
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time : 
Dogs howl'd and hideous tempests shook down trees ; 
The raven rook'd her on the chimney top." 

— Shakespeare. 



CREATION AT AN END. 205 

" Here no night-ravenes lodge more black than pitch." 

— Spenser, 

" The shrieks of luckless owls 
We hear, and croaking night-crows in the air." 

—Jonson. 

'"Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy ! 
Find out some uncouth cell, 

Where brooding darkness spreads his jealous wings, 
And the night-raven sings." — Milton. 

With these quotations we must leave the subject. 
Whether the prophet intended to represent a night 
monster or a screech owl is not of very great 
moment, for either fits adequately into the scene of 
desolation which he so stror^gly depicts. 

It will be seen clearly, I hope, from the examples 
I have given in this last division of my subject, how 
busy in the past has been man's imagination in filling 
the earth with strange and mysterious creatures. To 
endeavour to trace to their fountain-head the forces 
which have been at work in the creation of these 
monsters, and in forming the superstitions which I 
have mentioned in the previous chapters, would be 
futile ; — fear, wonder, reverence, aspiration, all these 
influences have had a place. 

But the days of creation are at an end. If I may 
put it so, we are resting now on " the laurels of the 
past." Men in the days that are gone have done 
wondrous things with their imagination, and we of a 
more prosaic, because perhaps more learned age, 



206 SUPERSTITIONS ABOUT ANIMALS. 

cease to create for ourselves, and look upon the 
imaginings of our forefathers with wondering in- 
terest. But much of the superstition we have 
"become heirs to" is likely to die a hard death. 
Education has done much, but, as I said at the 
outset of my writing, education is not of itself a 
power which will altogether eradicate superstition. 
Those who can lay claim to a wide knowledge of 
general subjects are not infrequently superstitious 
at heart. Nothing but a personal interest and 
knowledge of the wonders which abound in natural 
history will wipe out the errors. What an en- 
trancing subject Hesi at our hands waiting for our 
investigation! There is no subject under heaven 
which will give more pleasure or lasting and real 
profit than that of Natural History. The world, 
with its marvellous animal life, can have no real 
beauty or significance for the man who has never 
gone deeper than the mere outward, humdrum afl^airs 
of life, who has never examined the manifold wonders 
which abound in the Divine Creation. It requires 
no imagination, no superstition, to make this Crea- 
tion glorious! Let us take the simplest flower in 
the hedgerow, or the frailest insect in the grass, 
or the ten^erest shell in the depths of the ocean, and 
meditating thereon, we shall stand silent and awed 
in the presence of Eternal Wisdom. 



INDEX. 



Adder, 113, 171, 189 
Adder, deaf, 107 
Ape, 197 
ApoUyon, 202 
Asp, 96, loi 
Ass, 176 
Auguries of birds, 13 

Baboon, 197 
Basilisk, 185 
Bee, 165 

Birds of Paradise, 86 
Bittern, 163 
Blindworm, 107, 109 

Cat, as a barometer, 63 

black, 57 

reverence for, 58 

Chameleon, 82 

Chough, 23 

Cock, 136 

Cockatrice, 185, 188 

Creatures of the imagination, 

Crest, 187 

Crocodile, 84 

Crossbill, 134 

Crow, 19 

Cuckoo, S3 

Daw, 24 
Death-watch, 36 
Death's-head moth, 168 
--Dog, 8, 38 
Donkey, 17° 
Dragon, 190 



183 



Earwig, 62 

Frog, 73 

Gecko, 170 
Goat, 172 
Goat, he-, 197 
Goatsucker, 170 
Good omens, 45 
Griffin, 184, 200 

Haddock, 176 
Halcyon, 140 
Harpy, 202 
Hedgehog, 171 
Hoopoe, 32, 164 
Hysena, 87 

III omens, 9 

Jackal, 193 
Jackdaw, 23 
Jay, 24 

Kingfisher, 140 

Ladybird, 175 
Lamia, 204 
Lapwing, 31 
Lilith, 197, 203 
Lizard, 169 
Lizard, Egyptian, 172 

Magpie, 24 
Martin, 49, 117 



208 



INDEX. 



Newt, 8o 
Nightingale, 53 

against a thorn, 126 

in love with rose, 123 

lovelorn, 125 

music contest, 127 

song of, 130 

Night-crow, 204 
Nightjar, 170 
Night-monster, 197, 203 
Night-raven, 204 
Nostrums, 5 

Ostrich, appetite of, 162 

cruelty of, 160 

stupidity of, 159 

Owl, 25 

screech, 27, 203 

Peacock, 135 
Pelican, 131 
Petrel, stormy, 33 
Philomela, 119 
Phoenix, 198 
Pigeon, 34 
Plover, 33 

Rat, 173 

Rattlesnalie, 102, 112 
Raven, 9, 15 
Robin, 51 

legends of, 145 

Rook, 22 

Salamander, 77 
Satyr, 196 

Screech-owl, 27, 203 
Sea-monster, 177, 193 
Sea-serpent, 177 
Serpent, 88, 193 
Seven whistlers, 4 



Shark, 42 
Shrew-ash, 169 
Shrew-mouse, 169 
-Signs and omens, 6 
Slowworm, 107, 109 
Soothsaying, 14 
Snail, 87 
Snake, 88, 190 

charming, 105 

fascination, loi 

fear of, 88, 91 

poison, 112 

slimy, 95 

sting of, 97 

stories of, 92, 102 

Spider, 59 
Stork, 45 
Stormy petrel, 33 
•Superstition, cause of, I, 205 

world-wide, 2 

Swallow, 35, 48 

legends of, 49, 118 

torpidity of, 113 

"lucky" bird, 49 

Swan, 132 

Tadpole, 75, 76 
Toad, entombed, 70 

jewel in head of, 64 

venomous, 65 

Unicorn, 194 

Viper, 96, 98, 113, 190 

Wren, 31, 51 

hunting the, 152 

king of birds, 151 

Wild-ox, 196 

Yellowhammer, 158 



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THE STORY OF THE PIANOFORTE. By ALGERNON S. 
ROSE, Author of " Talks with Bandsmen." 

THE STORY OF HARMONY. By EUSTACE J. BREAK- 
SPEARE, Author of " Mozart," " Musical Esthetics," etc. 

THE STORY OF THE ORCHESTRA. By STEWART 
MACPHERSON, Fellow and Professor, Royal Academy of Music. 

THE STORY OF BIBLE MUSIC. By ELEONORF 
D'ESTERRE-KEELING, Author of "The Musicians' Birthday 
Book." 

THE STORY OF CHURCH MUSIC. By THE EDITOR. 
ETC., ETC., ETC. 



Thb Walter Scott Publishing Company, Limited, 
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The Makers of British Art, 

A NEW SERIES OF MONOGRAPHS OF 
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Each volume illustrated with Twenty Full-page Reproductions 
and a Photogravure Portrait. 

Square Crown Svo, Cloth, Gilt Top, Deckled Edges, 3J. 6d. net. 



VOLUMES READY. 

LANDSEER, Sir Edwin. By the Editor. 

" This little volume may rank as the most complete account ol 
Land seer that the world is likely to possess." — Times. 

REYNOLDS, Sir Joshua. By Elsa d'Esterrk-Kej;ling. 

"To the series entitled 'The Makers of British Art' Miss Elsa 
d'Esterre-Keeling contributes an admirable little volume on Sir 
Joshua Reynolds. Miss Keeling's style is sprightly and epigrammatic, 
and her judgments are well considered." — Dai/y Telegraph. 

TURNER, J. M. W. By Robert Chignell, Author of 
" The Life and Paintings of Vicat Cole, R. A." 

" Mr. Chignell's sketch of Turner's life and career is comparatively 
orief. But it is not superficial. It delineates the man Turner as he 
was, a man of splendid intelligence, of inexhaustible kindness, loyalty, 
and generous appreciation of the work of his fellow-artists." — Daily 

News, 

ROMNEY, George. By Sir Herbert Maxwell, Bart., 
F.R.S., M.R 
" Likely to remain the best account of the painter's life. " — Atkenaum. 

WILKIE, Sir David. By Professor Bayne. 

CONSTABLE, John. By the Right Hon. Lord Windsor. 

RAEBURN, Sir Henry. By Edward Pinnington, 

IN PREPARATION. 

GAINSBOROUGH-MILLAIS-HOGARTH-LEIGHTON- 
HENRY MOORE. 

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